What’s in a nickname? A term of endearment? A backhanded compliment laden with criticism of one’s flaws? In South Korea, a politician’s nickname – given affectionately and sometimes not so lightly by the public – conveys his or her most salient attributes and character. It’s also reflective of the constituents’ sentiment toward the leader’s policymaking and handling of state affairs, akin to a performance evaluation.
If you’re Park Geun-hye, Seoul’s current president, whose political career spans more than four decades, your public image and performance have been under constant evaluation and dissection by the public and opposition parties. The daughter of South Korea’s longest-ruling military leader, Park entered the realm of politics and statesmanship at the young age of 22 – as acting first lady following her mother’s assassination in 1974. As Park traversed Seoul’s political field, as National Assemblywoman (1998 to 2012), leader of the ruling party (2004 to 2006, 2011 to 2012), and finally, as the first female president of the Republic of Korea, she, as well as her policy choices, have earned her fair share of endearing nicknames and not-so-flattering epithets – from the “selfless daughter” of the country to the frigid, unapproachable “Ice Princess.”
The issue with these monikers is that they are doled out all too frequently, reflecting more the fickle, ever-changing nature of the South Korean public’s sentiment than the abiding merits and flaws of the statesman. The sobriquets come and go, but the person’s attributes are relatively more enduring, giving us a glimpse into the leader’s character and state-ruling style. If we examine these nicknames more closely against the contextual backdrop, we can learn a thing or two about the leader’s character, leadership and decision-making abilities.
And so, we look at some of Park Geun-hye’s most distinct nicknames to capture her defining characteristics, both strengths and weaknesses.
South Korea’s “Selfless Daughter”
When Park was elected president in 2012, she appealed to voters as the nation’s selfless daughter, who sacrificed her life and own interests for the good of the country. Unlike most politicians and presidential candidates, Park is unmarried and — perhaps more importantly in the eyes of South Korean citizens — dedicated her younger years to serving her father’s presidency as acting first lady, and then later as a female lawmaker in South Korea’s heavily male-dominated political world. Even her choice of college major, electrical engineering, is portrayed as Park’s effort to help South Korea increase exports by concentrating on developing electronic industries.
Park’s self-effacing, patriotic image stood in sharp contrast to the mainly self-seeking ways and motivations of the majority of Seoul’s political figures, earning her the trust and affections of the country’s electorate, particularly those of the older generation, who were nostalgic for the era of development and economic revitalization under Park Chung-hee. South Korea’s constituents elected Park in the hopes that – as she laid out in her inauguration speech – the people’s happiness and welfare will be placed before the needs and ambitions of elected officials.
“Queen of Elections”
In May 2006, Park, who was one of the frontrunners of the 2007 presidential election, attended a rally in northeastern Seoul to give a speech supporting the city’s mayoral candidate, Oh Se-hoon. As she was making her way up to the makeshift podium, a male assailant slashed Park’s face with a box cutter, leaving an 11-centimeter cut from her ear to jaw. Park, who remained calm and collected in the midst of the attack, was rushed to the hospital for treatment. The wound required some 60 stitches and several hours of surgery. Upon waking up in the hospital, Park’s first words to her secretary were, “How is Daejeon?” – referring to her party’s campaign in the city. Park’s comments helped her party’s mayoral candidate of Daejeon win the election, despite having trailed significantly behind his opponent. Park is also credited with the Grand National Party’s (now the New Frontier, or Saenuri, Party) sweeping victory of all reelections and by-elections held between 2004 and 2006. Her influence and efforts earned her the nickname, “Queen of Elections.”
The Ice Princess Cometh…
Fast forward ten years to 2016, when Park appears to have lost the magic touch of securing her party’s victory in election outcomes. In the most recent April legislative elections, the ruling party suffered a surprising defeat, losing not only its 16-year majority in the National Assembly but its status as the largest party. Among the reasons for the defeat were the public’s anxiety over domestic economic conditions, including youth unemployment, and dissatisfaction with Park’s governing style, described as being standoffish and too rigid, harkening back to the president’s earlier image as an unapproachable and stoic “Ice Princess,” too serious to warm up to constituents.
Comparison to Marie Antoinette is never, by any means, cast in a positive light. This nickname reinforces Park’s image as a leader distant from her people. More notably, the parallel is revelatory of what appears to be Park’s greatest character challenge – one that is evoked quite regularly by both opponents and even some of her own party members, but which Park has yet to address in a constructive manner. A loose Korean transliteration of the French queen’s name (mahl-ee an-tong-ha-nae) means “unable to communicate.”
Pundits acknowledge Park’s sincere and selfless efforts to keep her campaign pledges but point to a lack of transparency, intransigence, and poor communication skills in the administration as the root of frustration for the public, the opposition parties, and Park’s own supporters. Her governing style seems anachronistic to and out of touch with the times, leaving little room for debate or questioning – most of Park’s press conferences have been scripted speeches with no Q&As from the media. In March, opposition parties filibustered the administration’s proposed anti-terror bill, which, by giving unchecked authority to the National Intelligence Service, raised concerns about protecting citizens’ right to privacy and civil rights. The opposition was up in arms, less about the proposed bill than the “non-communicative attitude” of the Park administration and ruling party, which refused to heed to the public’s increased opposition to the bill.
With less than two years remaining in her presidency, Park Geun-hye faces the greatest challenge in restoring the South Korean public’s confidence in her leadership – crucial to gaining traction on any of her policy initiatives – and in reviving the ruling party’s appeal in time for the 2017 presidential elections. As some have warned, the lame-duck status may come earlier for the Park administration than previous presidencies, largely due to her distant, at times uncompromising leadership style. Criticism of Park’s governing approach is aplenty, but her earnestness in working out policy solutions to keep her promise of “a new era of hope and happiness” for South Koreans is also acknowledged by observers. And so, here is yet another call for Park to reassess her governing approach – out with the distant, non-communicative Ice Princess image—to bring back her appeal as the country’s selfless daughter dedicated to serving the people’s welfare.