An equally daunting array of challenges awaits the new president in the domestic arena. Fundamental social or economic change is not likely to be in the cards for South Korea during the next five years. But citizens made clear their desire to see significant reforms during the campaign when the term “economic democratization” was bandied about by candidates and the media. Koreans want their country’s economic growth to continue but they also want to see the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed and the power of the chaebol — large, family-controlled multinational conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai that dominate the economy— curtailed so that small businesses have a chance to thrive.
Dealing with the chaebol presents a particularly thorny problem. Progressive economic reformers may resent their dominance but the South Korean economy remains dependent on their success. The largest conglomerates account for more than half of South Korea’s GNP. At the same time, Park has greater credibility with the chaebol’s owners than almost any other South Korean politician. It was, after all, her father, Park Chung Hee, who nurtured the chaebol with preferential loans during the 1960s and 1970s, helping to build them up from very modest enterprises to the multinational corporations that are known throughout the world today. Their owners could almost be heard breathing a collective sigh of relief when Madame Park captured the presidency in December; she had, from the outset, proposed far more modest reforms to their structure than her opponent.
Ultimately, Park is unlikely to force the chaebol through any significant restructuring but she does have enough authority and goodwill in the corporate sector to curb their abuses and level the playing field for smaller businesses. Even if this does not amount to the giant leap forward that progressive economic reformers would like to see, it could still be an important stride that starts the reform process without jeopardizing growth.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is how Park will handle the issue of gender inequality. Despite becoming the first country in Northeast Asia to elect a female head of state, South Korea is notorious for its inegalitarian work culture. Women are routinely pressured to quit their jobs when they have children and female talent is under-rewarded in large Korean companies. Park promoted herself as “a prepared woman president” during the campaign but she cannot claim a strong track record on gender issues during her tenure in the National Assembly. Many have expressed skepticism that she will do very much to empower women.
But the chances that Park will make at least some progress on the issue are probably greater than her critics believe. Her victory is, at a minimum, a symbolic breakthrough in a country where women face obvious discrimination. Even if Park’s political lineage sheltered her from many of the hardships routinely encountered by most women seeking to advance their careers, it did not protect her from being asked unusual or irrelevant questions because of her gender during the campaign. Unmarried at age 60 in a country where most women wed during their twenties, she was once asked if she had ever been in love.
Regardless of her unremarkable record on gender equality, Park may yet prove more attuned to the issue than her predecessors. She cannot change all of the subtle discriminatory practices that prevail in South Korean companies overnight, but progress can be made if Park fulfills her campaign pledge to create incentives for firms to hire women.
Enhancing the wealth and security of South Korea’s 50 million citizens during the next five years will be no easy task. The new president will need to act swiftly and decisively on a broad spectrum of issues, combining skilled diplomacy and solid economic management with a genuine concern for social welfare. Only if Park can manage this with the same competence and flair that has marked her career as a politician will she be able to completely step out of her father’s shadow and prove that she is the right person for the job.
Gregg Brazinsky is an Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.