south korea park guen hye

On 25 February 2013, Park Geun-Hye was inaugurated as president of the Republic of Korea. She is the RoK's first female president and its sixth democratically elected head of state (genuinely competitive elections did not begin until 1987).

Although this retrospective will focus mostly on foreign policy, it is actually on domestic policy where she has stumbled most. The wealthy, well-connected daughter of a former 'president' (read: dictator), Park is very much a product of the elitist, Seoul-based, corporatist, oligarchic Korean establishment. Hence she is singularly incapable of challenging the Korean status quo, which beneath the 'tiger economy' veneer is actually fairly disturbing.

Korea has high rates of divorce, suicide, and alcohol consumption. Its birth rate is one of the lowest in the world. Its obsession with education bankrupts families and punishes young children with schooling until 10pm for five or six days a week for more than a decade. Corruption is endemic, and too-big-to-fail mega-conglomerates (chaebol) easily bully the state at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. Foreign investors find Korea a remarkably fatiguing place to operate in for a G-20/OECD economy.

Something has to give in this dysfunctional and extraordinarily stressful environment, as Park herself admitted in her inaugural address last year when she said that Korea needs to be 'happier'.

Although that sentiment was mocked at the time as trite, she was in fact quite correct. Yet she has done little beyond typical, true-to-Korean-form dirigiste solutions of more directed investment and state intervention in the economy that suits conglomerate interests.

One painfully obvious solution – the dire need for day-care so that professional women need not choose between career and family – has gone completely untouched, dashing early feminist hopes that a female president might finally move on this critical issue. Indeed, in my experience living and working in Korea, women dislike her more than men, and my female students dislike Park more intensely than any other cohort in my experience here.

Stated more broadly, Korea needs liberalisation, both of its economy and its social life.

Economically, this means less mercantilism, less oligopoly, lower prices for consumers, and less consumer debt. Socially, it means far greater tolerance of off-beat career choices (enough obsessing over a Seoul-based job at Samsung as the be-all, end-all of professional success), lots more free speech (particularly in the Korean media, which is far too supine; Korea is, shockingly, ranked as only 'partly free' by Freedom House on press freedom), and more meritocracy in place of ubiquitous old boys networks. Here is a summary of my concerns written for a Korean paper on Park's inauguration a year ago. Not much has changed.

On foreign policy, Park has been much better.

On the upside, her handling of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) expansion was great. She was tough without being provocative. Her retaliatory expansion of Korea's ADIZ to include Socotra Rock was well managed, as she was able to prevent Japan from counter-expanding its ADIZ to cover the Liancourt Rocks. That was very important, and she deserves real credit. More generally, her much-rumoured 'Sinophilia' is not blinding her to China's growing bullying in east Asia, even if China is bullying Japan, which many Koreans probably secretly approve of. Similarly, she has maintained the good-enough status quo with the US, despite regular popular resentment over the highly asymmetric character of the alliance.

Most importantly on the upside though, she has handled North Korea well. She dealt well with the spring 2013 war crisis. She sounded tough but restrained and did not give in to the bullying for aid.

Beyond that, simply managing North Korea without too much trouble is an achievement in itself. I never thought 'trustpolitik' was much more than a catchy slogan. Because really, who trusts North Korea? Grand schemes like this from the US and RoK to deal with North Korea always crash and burn. The best she can do is deal with the bizarre ups-and-down of the relationship and manage them as best she can. And she is doing that.

Conversely, on Japan, I think she has been deeply mistaken. She has let Japan take over far too much of the Korean foreign policy debate in the last year. She has done an astonishingly poor job of message control. She has done almost nothing to lead the Korean debate on Japan, instead allowing it to be captured by the most outrageous nationalist voices, particularly in the media. Is she so frightened of her father's affection for Japan that she cannot rein in this debate and push it in a healthier direction?

This has become a huge issue in East Asia. Korea-Japan tension badly alienates the US and benefits China and North Korea. That is a horrible outcome her predecessor skillfully avoided. She must be able to see it, so why is she not being more proactive and moderate?

The only reason Korea can be so strident on Japan is because Korea resides under the US security umbrella in Asia and therefore faces no costs from an anti-Japanese foreign policy. Korean security rests on the US commitment that keeps Korea's defence costs at perhaps one-third what they would be otherwise, yet Korea refuses to meet with America's main ally in its Asian defence commitments.

That contradiction is an unsustainable luxury and was wisely realised as such by the previous president, Lee Myung Bak. Lee gritted his teeth and tried to find at least a basic arrangement with Japan in the face of much irresponsible media and political alarmism. He showed leadership and guts by trying to lead public opinion.

By contrast, Park has followed it. She has indulged the worst instincts of Korean opinion on Japan, particularly in the media, which has been relentlessly inflammatory. And this truculence is what ultimately gave Abe the sense that going to Yasukuni in December 2013 had no costs. If the Koreans will not meet with him no matter what, then why not go to Yasukuni? Lee Myung Bak was a great president, especially on foreign policy, and should be a model for the current administration.

In summary, Park has been just OK. On the most important issue in South Korean politics, North Korea, she is doing well, even managing to achieve the deeply moving reunions of families estranged by Korea's long separation. For that she deserves great credit. But other than that, her administration has been a mixed bag, at best.

Photo by Flickr user KOREA.NET.