Skill­ful po­lit­i­cal theater buys Park time

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Her voice qua­vered. A na­tion watched, trans­fixed, a pres­i­dency on the line. Pum­meled by a week of un­prece­dented po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye de­liv­ered an apol­ogy-loaded ad­dress on Fri­day that hinged on a sin­gle, ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment. “From now on, I will com­pletely sever the per­sonal re­la­tion­ships in my life,” Park said amid an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether she al­lowed a long­time con­fi­dante to pull gov­ern­ment strings from the shad­ows.

This lan­guage strikes a pow­er­ful chord here be­cause it fits per­fectly into an im­age long cher­ished by Park’s hard­core con­ser­va­tive base: Park as a mar­tyr to South Korea, the or­phaned daugh­ter of a mur­dered dic­ta­tor and mur­dered first lady who has time and again sac­ri­ficed all sem­blance of per­sonal life when her coun­try needed her. Her vow of iso­la­tion marks an ex­cep­tional bit of po­lit­i­cal theater just when it’s needed most.

It may not save her pres­i­dency, but it buys her some pre­cious time, open­ing at least a small amount of breath­ing room dur­ing a scan­dal that has sent her ap­proval rat­ing to 5 per­cent, mak­ing her the most un­pop­u­lar leader since South Korea achieved democ­racy in the late 1980s. Her ad­dress was also a mas­ter class in apol­ogy. She ex­pressed “heart­break”, “shame” and said she was los­ing sleep. She ques­tioned her lead­er­ship and said she was will­ing to be in­ves­ti­gated and held re­spon­si­ble if found at fault.

Park has long been seen by her sup­port­ers as a mar­tyr to the coun­try, and some an­a­lysts say the im­age helped carry her to the pres­i­dency. The ti­tle of her au­to­bi­og­ra­phy is “How Suf­fer­ing Hard­ens Me and Hope Moves Me”. Park’s mother was killed in 1974 when a North Korea sym­pa­thizer from Ja­pan tried to kill her fa­ther, dic­ta­tor Park Chunghee. Her fa­ther was killed five years later by his spy chief.

She has never had a pub­lic ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship. She is also es­tranged from her sib­lings, who have been em­broiled in cor­rup­tion and drug scan­dals and have re­port­edly never en­tered the pres­i­den­tial Blue House dur­ing her time in of­fice. The main ar­gu­ment of Fri­day’s ad­dress seemed to be that since it was a “per­sonal re­la­tion­ship” with Choi Soon-sil - the daugh­ter of a for­mer men­tor who emerged in Park’s life around the time of her mother’s killing - that brought her to this point, she would be best served to erad­i­cate all per­sonal ties.

“Since I came to the Blue House, I have lived a lonely life, cut­ting off ex­changes with my fam­ily out of wor­ries that some­thing un­pleas­ant might hap­pen,” Park said. “Liv­ing alone, it was dif­fi­cult to find peo­ple who could help me with the per­sonal things I needed to get done, so I be­gan re­ceiv­ing help from Choi Soon-sil with whom I had a long re­la­tion­ship.”

This lan­guage of lone­li­ness may win back some of her stray­ing sup­port­ers and mo­men­tar­ily boost her ap­proval rat­ing. But it will carry lit­tle weight with the many who will ar­gue that the prob­lem was a spec­tac­u­lar lack of judg­ment, not a fail­ure to com­pletely iso­late her­self. Her crit­ics don’t see mar­tyr­dom; they see a dan­ger­ous dis­con­nect from the lives of real South Kore­ans. They don’t see heroic self-de­nial; they see an aloof, im­pe­rial leader who re­lies on a small co­terie of ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive sup­port­ers.

“For young peo­ple there will be no tears shed for Park. They’re go­ing to see it as an out­rage that peo­ple will say they’re sup­posed to feel pity for her,” said John Delury, a pro­fes­sor at Yon­sei Univer­sity’s Grad­u­ate School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies in Seoul. “But true be­liev­ers will think that be­cause she has no pri­vate life, no per­sonal in­ter­ests, she be­longs to the peo­ple, that she’s the per­fect leader.”

Park can be charm­ing and is a highly skilled politi­cian, but she also comes across as re­mote and un­com­fort­able at times, es­pe­cially around jour­nal­ists. Some of this was ap­par­ent at the end of her ad­dress to the na­tion Fri­day. As is of­ten the case, she held no ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion, but, in some­thing of a sur­prise move, she ap­proached the first row of as­sem­bled re­porters where she stopped and said: “I feel re­ally sorry for caus­ing so much con­cern for you too. I’m leav­ing now.” She bowed her head, turned on her heels and walked be­hind a cur­tain - alone again. — AP

South Korea’s Pres­i­dent Park Geun-Hye (left) bows prior to de­liv­er­ing an ad­dress to the na­tion at the pres­i­den­tial Blue House in Seoul on Fri­day. — AFP

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