Skillful political theater buys Park time
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