Jan 5th 2013 | SEOUL | from the print edition
PARK GEUN-HYE’S campaign advertising described her as a “prepared female president”. Having narrowly defeated the Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate, Moon Jae-in, on December 19th, two-thirds of her slogan will be realised with her inauguration on February 25th. The “prepared” part, however, is less clear.
South Korean presidents-elect appoint transition teams to help smooth their way into office and many of their members then take up posts in the new government. With her appointments, Ms Park seems to be trying to bridge the political divide. Her transitional team, consisting of nine subcommittees, is headed by Kim Yong-joon, a former head of South Korea’s Constitutional Court.
The rallying cry of the election was “economic democratisation”, a fluffy term that has two main strands, both of which Ms Park seems to be sticking to. The first is to counter the vast (and increasingly unpopular) power of families that run the chaebol, South Korea’s huge conglomerates.
Ms Park’s party is historically pro-chaebol. Her father set up the system that enabled them to flourish with governmental support. But she has promised a tougher line, notably on the system of cross-holdings that permit control of a conglomerate with only a small amount of capital.
At a meeting on December 26th with the Federation of Korean Industries, a chaebol lobby group, Ms Park emphasised jobs over profit maximisation. She has also pledged to be tougher on crooked behaviour. In the past decade three chairmen of the largest five chaebol have received presidential pardons following convictions for offences such as fraud and tax evasion. If she sticks to her word, this will stop.
The second strand is the expansion of the welfare state. Ms Park promises to provide free child care for under-fives, and to subsidise social security contributions and university-tuition fees for the poor.
On January 1st the national assembly approved 2.4 trillion won ($2.3 billion) of extra welfare spending to pay for all this, as part of the “Park Geun-hye budget”. Old conservatives like the outgoing finance minister, Bahk Jae-wan, have long grumbled about the populism of such measures.
A dangerous neighbourhood
Although Ms Park has undoubtedly shifted her party on domestic issues, foreign policy is unlikely to change much from that of outgoing president, Lee Myung-bak. Ms Park speaks some Chinese and will want to overcome the strains caused by China’s insistence on sending North Korean refugees back home rather than to South Korea, as well as the incursion of Chinese fishing boats into South Korean waters. But relations with America are strong and she will not want to risk them merely to please China. On December 24th, the Obama administration offered South Korea four advanced spy drones.
America’s expansion of its missile-defence programme in Asia raises Chinese concerns about containment. Some analysts say this will make Beijing see South Korea’s alliance with America as part of a wider anti-China strategy, rather than one merely directed at North Korea. There could be problems ahead, regardless of the fluency of Ms Park’s Chinese.
American officials hope Ms Park can repair damaged ties with their other main regional partner, Japan. South Koreans remain angry about colonial-era sex slavery, and the ownership dispute over the Dokdo islands (known as Takeshima in Japan), visited by President Lee in August. Ms Park’s father once served in the Japanese imperial army that occupied northeast China, making it politically impossible for her to show too much kindness to Japan.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s new premier, sent envoys to meet Ms Park on January 4th in an attempt to ease the tension, but the South Korean press has been working itself into a frenzy over Mr Abe’s strident nationalism. His big majority gives him leeway to be diplomatic, but any move to rescind a 1995 apology for wartime suffering his country caused would be disastrous for the bilateral relationship.
Then there is North Korea. Ms Park has based her approach on reciprocity, pitched halfway between the “sunshine” policy of former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and the frostiness of Mr Lee. She says she will start with small economic projects and humanitarian aid, and engage further if the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, chooses diplomacy with the South. She calls it “trustpolitik”.
On January 1st Mr Kim gave the first new year’s speech by a North Korean leader for 19 years, calling for an end to confrontation. But, although the style may mark a change, his demand for the implementation of old sunshine-era agreements is likely to leave Ms Park unmoved. Experience shows that one of the few things North Korea can be trusted to do is to continue developing nuclear weapons. Mr Kim may well test a device soon. Ms Park will need to be prepared.