Recently, a monthly magazine published an article by a feminist claiming that "supporting Park Geun Hye is the progressive thing to do." Her claim has triggered a "Park Geun Hye controversy," with those for and against the claim producing counterarguments against each other.
Park Geun Hye officially entered the political scene in December 1997, when the presidential election was hurtling towards its dramatic finale. Openly supporting the presidential candidate Lee Hwe Chang, she joined the Grand National Party (GNP) on December 10. In April the following year, she won the by-elections in Daegu to become a congresswoman, on the strength of her father former President Park Jung Hee's reflected glory. She kept her assembly seat in 2000 through the 16th general elections, and in November of the same year, she ran for vice-president of the GNP and was voted runner-up.
Park is drawing media attention particularly often this year with her continued criticism of GNP president Lee Hwe Chang, her consequent withdrawal from the party on February 28, and her current series of contacts with senior statesmen. In four years since her official initiation into politics, she has become a figure to be reckoned with in the central political arena.
However, this emerging darling of the media does not receive high marks from women groups, who claim that Park has not produced any women-related policies in the 4 years since she entered politics.
On the other hand, there are those of the opinion that it is high time for Korea to have a woman president, and that Park is the one with the highest chance to become one. But there are also quite a few censorious voices pointing out Park's 'karma-like' limitations, criticisms such as, "She has nothing to show for her untried political skills except her father's reflected glory," or "She is nothing but the 'shadow of a past' that the many people who suffered under her father's despotic regime wish to forget."
Park seen through her four years in the National Assembly
Park served on the Commerce, Industry and Energy Committee during the 15th National Assembly, and is currently serving on the Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee and the Special Commission on Women's Affairs during the 16th National Assembly.
During her four years in the National Assembly, she has not personally initiated any legislation, but has been part of over 30 joint proposals for legislation, such as the bills for the revision of the Laws Regarding Punishment of Sexual Violence and Protection of Victims and the Equal Employment Act.
According to the evaluation of activities by the 15th National Assembly legislators, conducted by the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice before the 16th General Elections of 2000, Park ranked 87th out of the 298 legislators. Park, who was then in the Commerce, Industry and Energy Committee, attended 22 of the 33 committee meetings and gave 13 speeches and raised 11 objections. This testifies that Park was quite an active interpellator, considering that she joined the National Assembly much later than her fellow legislators through the by-elections in 1998.
Park, together with congresswomen Lee Mi Gyung and Han Myung Sook (of the New Millennium Democratic Party), introduced the 'petition for the abolishment of the hoju system' filed by women groups including the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations (director Kwak Bae Hee), Korea National Council of Women (President Eun Bang Hee), and Korea Women's Associations United (then co-representative Ji Eun Hee).
At this, a member of the Special Commission on Women's Affairs commented, "It was quite unusual for a district representative like Park to sign the petition to abolish the hoju system. Her voters are in Daegu, which is known as a very conservative district. It's not something Park could have done easily if she had been conscious of her voting district, so I was quite surprised when she readily put her signature down on the list of legislators seconding the petition."
On bills related to women, Park made the following comments:
Regarding the bill to revise laws on the establishment of the Armed Forces Nursing Academy, Park's opinion was, "The government, based only on economic considerations, lowered the retirement age for teachers at the Nursing Academy, and ended up only worsening the shortage of teachers. Likewise, closing down the Academy when it will not even bring any real budget saving effects will never help nurture promising people into good army nurses, and will only worsen the problem of nursing officer shortage. This is also undesirable from the national defense perspective."
During the controversy regarding the system for adopting children from previous marriages, Park said, "In consideration of the stability of the newly formed family and the welfare of the children from the previous marriage, it would be unreasonable to limit the adoption age to seven and below. It would be more reasonable to do away with the age limit for adoption of children from former marriages and allow instead for children over seven to choose their own surname and ancestral clan."
Regarding the petition to allow women students to join the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), Park submitted the following opinion: "In the actual regulations of the ROTC, there are no clauses prohibiting women students from joining the ROTC, and yet in reality, women are not allowed to join. This has the makings of a constitutional controversy, and furthermore, training commissioned officers through the ROTC would be necessary for the smooth implementation of the National Defense Ministry's plans to expand utilization of female human resources. The three military academies have started admitting women, and the ROTC has no reason to be the only one still refusing to open its doors to women."
On the petition for the revision of laws on infant and child care submitted by women groups including the KWAU, Park was of the opinion, "Women's maternity leaves have increased to 90 days, but the problem is that after the 90 days, there is an undeniable shortage of care centers for infants. This is a pressing problem for working women, so plans and support measures to build more infant care facilities should be implemented as soon as possible."
The media once dubbed Park as "a politician with conviction who speaks her mind," thanks to her opinion regarding the investigations against newspaper companies, which differed from her party's position. Concerning the tax evasion investigations and the arrest of newspaper presidents found guilty, the GNP had the same opinion as the nepotistic newspaper companies. Opposing this party position, Park said that "instead of demanding a stop to the investigations, the party should play the role of watchdog to make sure that the investigations are not abused for some other purpose." In an interview with an Internet newspaper, Park claimed, "The public will not accept biased investigations where some newspapers are picked on while others are left alone. That would be against the citizens' concept of fairness."
In contrast, Park also showed clear examples of her conservative inclinations.
When President Kim Dae Jung offered an apology to the Vietnamese president - he said was sorry about Korea unintentionally causing the Vietnamese people great suffering by participating in an unfortunate war - during his visit to Vietnam on August 23, 2001, Park harshly criticized his action, saying that she could not have been more shocked if "the heads of the 16 countries that participated in the Korea War to protect liberal democracy in Korea were to apologize to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il." Park questioned the president's view of history that made him think that Korea's participation in the Vietnam War brought suffering to the Vietnamese. She went as far as to claim, "Ideological confrontation and conflict have reached the highest peak since the birth of the Republic, and the state's faith in the system of liberal democracy is being shaken to its very foundation."
Controversies surrounding Park
Regarding her gender
For: Women are still the minority and the weak in this country, so we need to support Park if only for the reason that she is a woman.
Against: Being biologically female does not make you a woman.
Against: Has Park ever made any comments concerning women policies or her awareness of women? Things will not change even if she becomes president.
For: Why so critical of Park only? She has been working for women; it's just that the press doesn't report it.
For: Park has capabilities in state affairs borne of an experience that no one else has had. She had worked right beside former president Park Jung Hee for five years, meaning that she took leadership lessons from the very heart of state power. How to beat that?
Against: Park is not so much a politician but her father's daughter, a political symbol of those who wish to revive the past. Her role as acting first lady, made up mostly of hosting receptions, cannot be called experience with state affairs.
Regionalism (regional egotism)
Against: Park did not enter politics on the strength of her political skills. She got where she did thanks to the conservative forces that favored Park Jung Hee as well as the evils of regionalism.
For: That is political naivete. The nostalgia for former president Park Jung Hee and regionalism reflect popular support, which in turn increases Park's chances of winning the elections. Shouldn't we concentrate first on getting a woman elected president?
For: Park has led reforms within the GNP. This shows her resoluteness towards reforms.
Against: Just look at the people around Park. There are only conservative males. How can you expect reforms in such an environment?