Park Geun-hye

New South Korean president Park vows to make people happy

Seoul's first female leader is already battling an opposition trying to veto her ministerial choices

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 February, 2013, 2:59am

Following a jaunty ceremony featuring a 21-gun salute, folk dancers and Gangnam Style star Psy, Park Geun-hye, who was sworn in yesterday as president of South Korea, made a revolutionary promise - to make her workaholic, ultra-competitive, ultra-stressed people happy.

Unfortunately – and uniquely for an incoming South Korean president – she has no administration in place to deliver that promise.

Park is not only the first female leader to win South Korea's presidency, but she is also the first to follow a family member to the office – her late father, Park Chung-hee, took power in a coup in 1961 and held on to it until his 1979 assassination.

Park is reviled by today's left-wing opposition party, and they have taken what might be considered a belated revenge; by vetoing his daughter's plans for government reorganisation, they have prevented any of her ministerial nominees from assuming office.

South Korea divides power between its executive and legislative branches. While the National Assembly makes laws, the president exercises power via the ministries, whose heads the president appoints.

It is the first time in South Korean political history that the assembly has stalled an incoming administration.

I will usher in a new era of hope, whereby the happiness of each citizen becomes the bedrock of our nation's strength, which in turn is shared by and benefits all Koreans

Even so, pundits say that most of Park's nominees will eventually be appointed. Her conservative New Frontier (Saenuri) Party holds the largest number of seats in the assembly.

"The Saenuri Party are really close to a majority in the assembly but they have to break the nomination process down into committees, it is not a full floor vote," said Karl Friedhoff, who monitors political opinion for Seoul think-tank the Asan Institute. "But I suspect they will have a majority in most committees and so will be able to push most nominees through."

Even so, the situation indicates the fractured and confrontational nature of Korean politics.

In her inaugural speech, Park struck old and new notes.

While she did not mention her father, greatly respected by the older generation but despised by youth, she made repeated references to the economic miracle engineered by her authoritarian parent.

But she also made clear that she wanted to make South Korea a happy nation, noting that the country was built on the "blood, toil and sweat of the people".

"I will usher in a new era of hope, whereby the happiness of each citizen becomes the bedrock of our nation's strength, which in turn is shared by and benefits all Koreans," she promised in her speech.

Korea watchers were generally impressed. "Provided this is not political rhetoric, this has enormous significance," said Michael Breen, author of The Koreans. "Koreans were able to grow into a middle class and get rich as a by-product of economic growth, but she is proposing to put the happiness of individuals at the forefront of national policies - in other words, growth will be designed to serve individuals, not the other way round."

But Park faces some steep challenges.

South Koreans hold some of the world's highest levels of household debt. Youth unemployment is soaring and business is dominated by giant companies that small firms accuse of monopolising finance, capital and ideas and pushing small businesses to the wall. And while economic statistics do not reveal a significant income gulf compared to many developed nations, they do indicate a shrinking middle class.