Will Populism Shape the Policies of South Korea's New President?

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LAST Dec 19, South Korea’s ruling conservative and staunchly pro-US Saenuri (New Frontier Party) extended its tenure with the successful election of its candidate for the country’s presidency. But while voters may have been expressing a preference for continuity rather than the radical economic shifts advocated by opposition groups, some form of change seems almost inevitable.

In Ms Park Geun Hye, South Korea now has its first female president. Ms Park, 60, is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979. He is loved and loathed in equal measure by those who admire the success of his export- oriented growth strategy and those who condemn his authoritarianism. 

In such a deeply patriarchal society, will Ms Park be able to stamp her authority on government? Or will such efforts be thwarted by suspicions that she has somehow inherited her father’s authoritarian ways?

In foreign policy, her room for manoeuvre seems limited.

During the election campaign, Ms Park distanced herself from the hardline stance of outgoing President Lee Myung Bak. In the wake of North Korea’s missile test in December, however, she appeared to backtrack, referring to the “grave” security threat posed by the North and the need to ensure that security remained a priority.

The reality, of course, is that Seoul’s policy towards Pyongyang is unlikely to change very much. Hawks in her own party, as well as the perceived need to coordinate responses with Washington, will see to that.

With the economy, however, Ms Park may well have more leeway.

A major theme during the election campaign was the clamour for more economic equality and the need to rein in the large chaebols (family-run conglomerates) regarded by many as responsible for strangling innovation and the widening rich-poor gap.

Ms Park rejected the tough anti- chaebol measures advocated by Mr Moon Jae In, her liberal opponent from the Democratic United Party. But she did promise to promote “economic democratisation”. The latter refers to attempts to protect both small firms and consumers against the economic might of giants such as Samsung and Hyundai Motor Group.

Ms Park now seems determined to implement these plans.

Her first meeting with business leaders associated with the Federation of Korean Industries (FKI) last month was pointedly preceded by a visit to the Korean Federation of Small and Medium Businesses earlier in the day.

Ms Park asked corporate leaders to guarantee employment until retirement age, avoid excessive investments in real estate and protect neighbourhood mom-and-pop shops in order to ensure shared growth.

“Large conglomerates,” she told them, “should not be fixated on maximising company profits but further seek co-prosperity in the entire community.”

The approach was in sharp contrast to that of President Lee who, when he was president-elect in 2007, visited the FKI first, indicating his intention to introduce business-friendly measures such as easing government regulations.

It will be interesting to see to what extent Ms Park takes advantage of strong anti-chaebol sentiment to extend her authority into the economic sphere. Will she seek to dismantle other aspects of the close cooperation between the government and major corporations that formed the cornerstone of her father’s approach to economic development? Or will she conclude that the system created by him remains a good one, requiring only a few minor tweaks?

More detailed measures are likely to be revealed when Ms Park takes office next month.

The revised government budget approved by lawmakers on Jan 1 already hints at some changes. Defence spending has been reduced, while allocations for social welfare and construction projects have been increased.

These moves appear consistent with Ms Park’s populist campaign pledges, which include free child care, college education subsidies and more support for the poor. Her announced priorities are certainly quite different from those normally expected of conservative South Korean presidents.

With the economy still struggling as a result of falling exports, the finance ministry has delayed plans to achieve a balanced budget until 2014. The nation’s sovereign debt is estimated at a moderate 34 per cent of GDP, suggesting that deficit spending can continue for some time without spooking financial markets.

On such matters, however, Ms Park is likely to defer to her ministers.

While setting the general policy direction, the incoming president appears to want to stand aloof from the rough and tumble of daily politics. Unlike outgoing President Lee, who likes to preside over Cabinet meetings, Ms Park has said she would prefer that the prime minister take on this task.

Change there will be. The real question is exactly how it will play out.

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited 

Key Political Risks

Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, won the December 19 presidential election. She has the support of the ruling conservative New Frontier Party, but as a woman in a deeply patriarchal society, she may have to work hard to assert her authority in government.  


  • Attitude of the government towards the chaebols (large family-owned conglomerates). Ms Park's father strongly supported chaebol development when he was president, but during the recent campaign Ms Park indicated that she would back reforms aimed at ensuring fair competition for smaller firms.
  • Measures designed to assist women enter the workforce, improve child care facilities and help lower income groups.
  • Official policies towards the North. In campaign speeches, Ms Park appeared to distance herself from her conservative predecessor's hardline stance. But powerful elements within the ruling New Frontier Party are likely to resist any change.
  • Continuing power transition in the North. It has gone smoothly so far. But there also appear to be those in the upper echelons of the regime that are unhappy with Kim Jong Un's credentials and see him as a weak leader.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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