Park's first year gets mixed marks

SEOUL - President Park Geun-hye enters the second year of her five-year term with mixed evaluations on her state management ― largely positive for external relations and reform efforts, but negative for domestic politics.

Over the last year, Park has restored ties with China and strengthened the country's long-standing alliance with the US, while cementing its strategic partnership with Russia.

Based on her "principled" approach toward the North, Park has also maintained peninsular security despite menacing rhetoric and provocations from Pyongyang including a third underground atomic test last February.

On the domestic front, her reform drive to "normalize abnormal practices" has been highly appraised. Through the initiative, her government has sought to overhaul the debt-ridden public corporations and stamp out corruption in society.

All these feats have helped her maintain approval ratings of more than 50 per cent. But the achievements have been overshadowed by her failures to promote communication and cooperation with opposition parties and the public in her state management.

"Looking back on the past year, President Park has not regarded the opposition parties and even the ruling party as partners, with whom she is supposed to lead the nation," said Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University.

"She also did not seem to grant due autonomy to her subordinate staff, making her governing style inflexible."

Experts called on the president to reach out more to the public and make more efforts to mend the differences with opposition parties. They also stressed the need to map out a more concrete foreign policy strategy to enhance long-term national interests.

Various polls showed her approval ratings rebounding to more than 55 per cent, with majorities praising her North Korea policies but criticising her communication skills and personnel management style.

During the first few months, Park's approval ratings dropped to 42 per cent due to consecutive withdrawals of nominees for top government posts over allegations of ethical misdeeds and consequent delays in launching the Cabinet. The ratings started to pick up mainly due to the Seoul government's measures against North Korea's repeated aggravation and Park's first visit to the US.

The ratings dropped again after former presidential spokesman Yoon Chang-jung was fired over sexual assault allegations. The ratings, however, rebounded in August when she started to turn to the nation's economy. During a New Year's news conference, Park announced a set of economic innovation plans along with her strong drive to revamp the public sector.

Park plans to announce details of the three-year economic stimulus plan in a statement to be read Tuesday, the first anniversary of her inauguration. She will then preside over a joint meeting of top economic policymakers and civilian economic advisers, her spokesman Min Kyung-wook told reporters.

Surveys conducted ahead of the Park administration's first anniversary showed around 55 per cent public approval, slightly higher than the 51.6 per cent of votes that she won in the 2012 presidential election.

Gallup Korea's poll conducted on Feb. 10-14 on 1,208 adults showed that 56.4 per cent of the respondents believed Park was doing a good job. Another survey by Realmeter of 2,500 respondents from Feb. 10-14 showed that 55 per cent said they were satisfied with Park and her job as president.

"For the time being, Park's image as a stable leader seems to be working, with her approval ratings standing around the 55 per cent mark," Yoon said.

But her image as a stable leader has, on the other hand, magnified her negative image of being an authoritative and uncommunicative leader, he said.

In the event of social or political conflict, she refused to talk with opposition lawmakers or unionized laborers and maintained an attitude heavily based on "principle and law." Her political foes have stepped up an offensive against her, saying she should talk first to narrow differences before making judgments.

As a result of her approach, Park entered her second year in the office loaded with domestic problems unresolved.

Disputes over the National Intelligence Service's alleged election meddling still troubles her government and has stonewalled dialogue between herself and political circles.

In December, even a number of Protestant orders joined factions of the Catholic Church and Buddhists in declaring a crisis, while labour unions have gone as far as announcing that they would fight for the removal of the Park administration.

In a rare move, the Seoul office of Amnesty International on Monday sent a letter to Park regarding its concern that the government is abusing its power and infringing on the freedom and human rights of the unionized workers who had been detained by the police on the charge of interfering with the country's rail system.

"She could have done better if, with her abundant political assets, she had sought national unity and compromise (on conflicting matters), instead of building her image as an authoritative leader," he said.

Critics attacked the president's top-down communication style with her chief secretaries, the Cabinet and the ruling party.

Communication between Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling Saenuri Party was also insufficient. Park also left little room for Cabinet members to make their own decisions and was critical of alternative ideas, observers said.

The abrupt resignation of former Health Minister Chin Young was an example. The politician-turned-minister resigned from the post, citing fissures with the presidential office over Park's scaled-down pension programme for senior citizens. Chin said he felt "helpless" and like he was "reaching the limit" as minister to lead the government's ambitious drive to expand welfare.

"The core (power) of the democracy comes from winning people's consent and from offering autonomy to bureaucrats. If this kind of (authoritative) leadership continues for two or three years. It could put the state in danger," Yoon said.

Foreign affairs and North Korea

Park has been highly evaluated for her handling of North Korea and relations with major powers including the US, China and Russia, although ties with Japan have dipped to one of their lowest ebbs due to historical and territorial disputes.

Despite a series of Pyongyang's provocative actions and rhetoric last year including nuclear and missile tests, Park has stably managed inter-Korean relations under her "principled" policy to the northern brethren, analysts pointed out.

"During the first year of her presidency, Park put forward her foreign policy initiatives on peninsular, regional and global levels, which are quite well organised," said Huh Moon-young, a senior fellow at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification.

"Park has also presented a balanced approach toward North Korea: She focused both on defence and reunification, although conservatives mostly lean toward defence against the North and liberals toward reunification."

Through her summit diplomacy, Park has also accumulated international support for her campaigns to build trust with Pyongyang and promote peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Last year, Park made bilateral visits to nine countries and participated in six multilateral summits including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Indonesia and the Group of 20 major economies in Russia.

Analysts say that in the second year of her term, Park will have to flesh out her foreign policy initiatives and take concrete steps to implement them based on the international support she has so far secured.

Over the last year, Park's policy to the North focused on building a "normal" state-to-state relationship with Pyongyang, while she refused to cave in to Pyongyang's saber-rattling apparently aimed at "taming" the new Seoul government, observers noted.

Her policy has led to a "future-oriented" normalization of the joint industrial park in the North's border town of Gaeseong, which Pyongyang unilaterally suspended last April amid strained relations.

Her pursuit of humanitarian cooperation with the North has also culminated in the bilateral agreement to hold the cross-border reunions of separated families for the first time in more than three years.

But some experts offered negative evaluations on Park's North Korea policy, arguing that the president had been "inflexible" in her stance and failed to differentiate her approach from the strictly reciprocal one of her predecessor.

"There should be some improvement compared with the former Lee Myung-bak administration that was criticised for a failure to enhance inter-Korean ties. But there doesn't seem to be visible progress," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"While sticking to her 'principle-based' approach, she appears to have focused only on the stable management of situations rather than applying some more flexibility (to move the relationship with the North forward)."

To rev up her "peninsular trust-building" process, Park is expected to put more effort into engaging Pyongyang toward reconciliation this year.

But many obstacles remain as the two sides differ over a variety of issues including Pyongyang's nuclear programme, the resumption of the long-stalled tours to Mount Geumgangsan and the lifting of Seoul's ban on government-level exchanges.

Huh of the Korea Institute for National Unification advised that Seoul take a more flexible stance and seek to lay the foundation for peaceful reunification in a consistent manner.

"If you look at the broader picture, Pyongyang might be seen as winning on a 'tactical level' should Seoul make any concessions. But in the long term and on a 'strategic' level, Seoul is bound to win. The game is already over, to be candid," said Huh.

"With this in mind, Seoul should take a consistent approach to bring the North out to the international community and promote peace here and beyond."

On a broader foreign policy front, Park has been praised for balancing relations with the US and China.

Since the beginning of her term last February, Park has sought to restore ties with Beijing, which analysts say had deteriorated due to the former administration's inordinate focus on the long-standing alliance with Washington.

Choosing China as her second destination for summit diplomacy after the US, Park has indicated that she regarded Beijing as a crucial strategic partner in terms of trade, tourism and security vis-a-vis Pyongyang's nuclear adventurism.

Amid improving bilateral relations, Seoul has ensured Beijing's explicit support for peninsular denuclearization and its participation in international sanctions to punish Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests.

Tokyo's failure to fully atone for its wartime atrocities and attempt at glorifying its militaristic past have brought Seoul and Beijing even closer together. Their collaboration against Japan has led to the establishment last month of a memorial hall dedicated to Ahn Jung-geun, a South Korean independence fighter, in China.

But South Korea-China relations also suffered a setback last year when Beijing unilaterally declared its air defence zone that overlaps with that of South Korea. Many analysts here viewed the move as an attempt at expanding the sphere of Chinese influence in the region.

Along with the relations with China, Park has also sought to strengthen the alliance with the US, stressing that the security cooperation with Washington is the bedrock of peninsular security.

Amid Pyongyang's escalating nuclear threats, Seoul and Washington have deepened their military cooperation.

Last year, the two sides finalized their "tailored deterrence strategy" against the North's weapons of mass destruction including nuclear arms and decided to reconsider the timing of the handover of wartime operational control based on "conditions" rather than a fixed timeframe.

Based on mutual trust, the allies have also addressed a series of sensitive issues including the negotiations over a bilateral civilian nuclear energy pact and Seoul's share of the cost for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

In the coming years, the crucial task facing the Korea-US alliance is to set the common strategic vision, based on which the allies could map out concrete strategies on cooperation in security and other areas.

"Seoul and Washington have discussed their alliance issues without mid-term or long-term visions as to the purpose of their relationship. This is the fundamental problem facing the two sides," said Park Won-gon, political science professor at Handong Global University.

"They should clarify their vision particularly amid the intensifying Sino-US rivalry and decide on what the alliance will do today and after peninsular reunification. They may say the alliance was not made to keep China in check, but it is aimed at promoting regional peace."

Despite close relations with Washington and Beijing, Seoul's ties with Tokyo have worsened over the last year due to Japanese nationalists' rhetoric and behaviour that seemed to whitewash the country's imperial-era aggression.

Tokyo's repeated claim to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo has also aggravated anti-Japanese sentiment here.

Experts called on Seoul to pursue practical cooperation with Tokyo with longer-term strategic goals in mind. But unless Japan takes sincere action to restore bilateral ties, any improvement in relations would be unlikely, observers said.