Xi Jinping

Asia's new scion leaders inherit their nations' pressing problems

Katharine Moon says northeast Asia's four new leaders share more than political pedigree and a conservative outlook - Park, Abe, Xi and Kim face daunting economic and foreign policy challenges

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2012, 3:23am

Plenty of tensions divide northeast Asia: island disputes involving Japan, Korea and China; military tensions between the two Koreas, between China and Japan, and of course, the perennial China-Taiwan face-off as status quo.

But the individuals who ascended to power in late 2012 - China's Xi Jinping, Japan's Shinzo Abe and South Korea's Park Geun-hye - have much in common. This is also true for North Korea's Kim Jong-un, who ascended to power a year ago.

All four leaders are princelings (or "princess-ling" in Park's case), the children of powerful fathers who had been part of the ruling establishments of their countries. They are conservatives in political outlook, placing priority on social order and military strength. They are pedigreed nationalists by upbringing and ideological orientation. And their most pressing challenges are domestic, particularly the economy. Yet, foreign policy will test and tax them as they try to focus on domestic matters of political consolidation and change.

On December 19, Park was elected to power in South Korea. Her father Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist for 18 years, created the famed Korean economic "miracle" when he was in power. Koreans refer to her pejoratively as the "princess" or "ice princess", and even those in her inner circle have complained about her high-handed manners and haughty treatment of those around her.

Park is no democrat by upbringing, having made the presidential Blue House her home with the hundreds of guards, servants, and underlings to tend to the First Family's needs and desires. At the time, most South Koreans were working hard to dig their way out of poverty and still struggling to overcome the destruction of war. But Park was sheltered from deprivation and travails - until both her parents were assassinated, leaving her an orphan in her late 20s.

She is the newest member of an elite club of dynastic rule in East Asia, represented particularly by Abe, Japan's prime minister, the son of a former foreign minister, Shintaro Abe, and the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, a leader in the imperial army who worked closely with General Hideki Tojo during the second world war and later became prime minister.

Like Abe, Xi Jinping, who was named the new "paramount leader" of China in November, hails from a leading military and political family. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was part of the top caste of revolutionary leaders as guerilla fighters during the Chinese civil war and one of the founders and builders of the People's Republic. In the late 1980s, the elder Xi became an instrumental figure in promoting market reforms in southern China.

The youngest of the princely club is Kim Jong-un, who took over from his late father, Kim Jong-il, in December last year. Like Park south of the 38th parallel, he enjoyed privilege and luxury as a child, and was educated in Europe. Like Abe, Kim traces his modern dynastic roots to his grandfather (Kim Il-sung). Both Kim and Xi claim the highest possible revolutionary ancestry and Communist pedigree.

All four leaders share more than the past. They face economic stress, with North Korea needing a complete makeover of the very economic system that Grandfather Kim had created, and China needing to pull in the reins - without an abrupt stop or severe crash - on the very growth that Xi's father had helped put into motion. China worries about a slowed growth rate, while Japan can't get its economy to grow at all.

Both the Japanese and the South Koreans demand better welfare safety nets, reduced unemployment and income gaps, and more government and corporate transparency. All four countries are riddled with corruption that greases yet throws wrenches into the economy.

Park, Abe, Xi and Kim would have a tough enough time managing economic restructuring, reforms and recovery with all else being equal, but internal dissent and vicious nationalism are big stumbling blocks that can derail focus on the economy. Kim and Xi need to consolidate their power and work with varying generational, regional, factional and ideological pressures from elites. Balancing the interests of the workers' party, the military and the technocracy is one imperative.

Park and Abe won in national elections, but they lack secure popular support and moral legitimacy. Their respective (liberal) opposition parties will vigilantly seek to block or bring down the ruling party in each country. One obvious means is to throw darts at the family lineage and demand atonement for the sins of their fathers, as well as their own.

Park's every action and inaction will be viewed as part of her father's legacy and not her own. She has yet to confront the public's memory and outrage at the human rights violations and deprivations of her father's time that are now intertwined with Korean liberals' contempt for her.

On the nationalist front, things may be less fraught than some believe. The four leaders' conservative orientation and establishment background might give them a bit of wiggle room to restrain their conservative but nationalist supporters from fanning nationalist fires.

Upon Park's election victory, Abe quickly extended diplomatic overtures to improve relations with South Korea and seems willing to break a campaign promise to observe "Takeshima Day" on February 22, which would certainly force Park's new government to react sharply to counter Tokyo's claim to sovereignty of the disputed islet that Koreans call Dokdo.

Park herself has promised re-engagement with Pyongyang, reversing the policy of the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak. Lee had been intent to undo the Sunshine Policy and its variation under his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun. Park may be in a position to improve relations with the North as a conservative and staunch anti-Communist, more so than her liberal opponent, Moon Jae-in.

Katharine H.S. Moon, PhD, is professor of political science at Wellesley College and associated fellow at the Asia Society in New York. Her book, Protesting America: Democracy and the US-Korea Alliance, is forthcoming next month