Park Geun-hye under fire over handling of Mers crisis

The South Korean president has been criticised for her slow response to the deadly outbreak, one year after facing flak over the ferry tragedy

President Park Geun-hye is finding herself at the helm of her second national crisis as Mers hysteria sweeps South Korea, but it is not yet clear if her grip has got any firmer.

The nation's first female leader and her administration faced an avalanche of public and media criticism in April last year for what was widely perceived as a failed rescue operation and a botched recovery effort when the Sewol ferry sunk, dragging more than 300 people, largely schoolchildren, to graves in the Yellow Sea.

Now, with the nation reeling from a Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak that has killed 14, infected nearly 140 and forced 3,680 into quarantine, the government-bashing is scarcely less ferocious.

"Stricken with incompetence, this administration is beyond recovery," the leftist newspaper said in an op-ed. But while the can always be relied upon to slam the conservative Park, the left-wing flagship has not been alone in its criticism.

Economy-focused titles have joined the critical barrage, with the opining that "the government has caused a catastrophe due to the absence of a proper reaction". Most damningly, the country's most popular, most influential newspaper - the right-wing , usually a natural ally of Park - asked: "Where is the leadership in this Mers crisis?"

The question was germane. Park is the only daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman general who seized power in a 1961 coup and oversaw South Korea's "zero-to-hero" economic success story. Park, who won the presidency in 2012, has been named the 11th most powerful woman in the world by magazine.

Given such qualifications, Park's administration might have been expected to have exercised strong leadership. Yet - particularly in the early days of the crisis - leadership was sorely lacking.

South Korea's first Mers case was reported on May 20 and the first death on June 1, but the administration appears to have misjudged both the potential seriousness of the outbreak, and the panicky public reaction.

In the first week, the president instructed officials to take necessary steps and continued her routine schedule. Twelve days after the first confirmed case, Park's only actions had been to lambast her cabinet for their ineffective response and to urge public calm.

It would be 18 days into the Mers outbreak before the government officially named 24 hospitals where the virus was being transmitted; prior to then, it had neglected to do so in order to contain fear. By then, the information had already leaked out. As the death toll mounted and the number of confirmed infections and quarantined persons soared, the economic impact of the outbreak became apparent over the past week.

As a result, the Bank of Korea cut its interest rate to a record low of 1.5 per cent on Thursday, and the government has prepared emergency funds of US$360 million to assist regions and companies that are hardest hit. Ministers have or are taking trips to Pyeongtaek, the port-industrial city of 450,000 where the first cases of the virus were reported, to reassure the public.

In terms of containing the disease, the official reaction has moved into a more decisive - arguably authoritarian - phase. Special task forces are monitoring the locations of those in quarantine by obtaining their mobile phone data. And one rural village has been totally quarantined, barricaded in by police roadblocks.

Over the past week, the president has won some kudos. She was filmed on a personal visit to a place many Koreans fear to tread - the National Medical Centre in Seoul where Mers patients were quarantined - and was pictured speaking to medics encased in spacesuit-like protective gear.

She also postponed a US visit and a summit with President Barack Obama in order to steer the nation through the Mers crisis. This seems wise, given past form: she was lambasted for her insensitivity in April, when she flew out of the country on the first anniversary of the Sewol tragedy for a state visit to South America.

When it comes to crisis management, Park faces a particular challenge given the nature of the nation that she governs. In South Korea, distrust of government combines with a highly communal, hi-tech society that permits information - and rumour - to spread like wildfire.

A column in the newspaper noted not only was there a "fundamental breakdown in trust between the population and the Korean government," but also, "South Koreans are notorious for circulating, correcting, corroborating and obfuscating information at internet speed...all of which makes the population potentially naive and gullible once a meme or new idea spreads."

As a result, the public reaction - evidenced by the quiet streets and the plethora of masked persons downtown - has been extreme. Even the World Health Organisation has weighed in, urging the more than 2,000 closed schools to reopen.

Park is constitutionally limited to a single, five-year term, which she is now halfway through. Her approval ratings hover in the low 30 per cent range and she has no single, standout achievement to point to.

"One thing that I have come to conclude is that she does not have any leadership quality," said Oh Young-jin, editor of . "She has taken a lot of blows so far."

Park took office in 2013, having won the 2012 election by stealing the thunder from the leftist candidate, who promised a massive upgrade to the social welfare network. In response, Park laid out her own, only slightly more modest, programme of welfare spend. Post-election, her central promises - cash allowances to senior citizens and half-price college tuition - were quietly dropped.

She also pledged to build a "creative economy" which would lessen South Korea's reliance upon the giant family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy.

But while government funds have been set aside for ventures, banks ordered to lend to small businesses and a new, small-cap stock market created, it seems unlikely that the economic landscape will shift significantly during Park's term.

On foreign policy, Park has made clear her dislike of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and shifted Seoul away from Tokyo and closer to Beijing. But even in China policy, her standout achievement - a bilateral free-trade agreement - is analysed as being less inclusive, and with a longer implementation time frame, than previous "gold standard" FTAs with the EU and United States.

Her North Korea strategy has gone nowhere. Her hopes of "building trust" on the divided peninsula have not been reciprocated by Pyongyang, and although she famously likened Korean reunification to "hitting the jackpot", there is no process underway to expedite or even discuss this outcome.

And her personal judgment has been questioned over disastrous personnel appointments. Her spokesman resigned after a scandal, and her prime ministerial nominees have been problematic, resulting in the number two political position in the nation remaining vacant.

This indicates that Park may find herself with no legacy, beyond public memories of the Sewol tragedy and the Mers crisis.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Park under fire over handling of Mers crisis