South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, was sworn in today, taking the helm of the dynamic northeast Asian state at a tumultuous time – both for the economy and for relations with North Korea.
President Park, daughter of a former ruler and a conservative, was voted in on a wave of frustration following five years of the outgoing Lee Myung-bak government, which saw a widening of economic inequality, curtails to freedom of speech across South Korea, and two nuclear tests by North Korea.
As Park’s government begins to take shape, many are wondering if she will follow through on her pledge to oversee a substantial departure from the policies of the Lee government of which Park herself has been highly critical.
“The members she chose [for her incoming cabinet] are reliable and have experience in government administration," says Bong Young-shik, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Seoul. "They are familiar figures,” he says.
One name that has raised eyebrows is incoming Justice Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Mr. Hwang is a former judge and enthusiastic proponent of South Korea’s National Security Law (NSL), which was enacted in 1948, after Japanese colonial occupation and before the beginning of the Korean War, which prohibits South Koreans from aiding, funding, supporting, or otherwise helping "anti-state" organizations. According to a 2012 Amnesty International report, between 2008 and 2011 the number of cases in which charges were filed in this area increased by 95.6 percent.
In particular, the government targeted people participating in activities perceived as being pro-North Korea.
The law's most controversial clause is Article 7, which demands criminal prosecution for “any person who praises, incites or propagates the activities of an anti-government organization.” Critics say this clause is vaguely worded and meant to stifle dissent; supporters say it is needed to protect South Korea’s fragile truce with North Korea.
Earlier this month, South Korean activist Ro Su-hui was sentenced under the law to four years in prison for making an unapproved trip to North Korea.
Amnesty International says the NSL is “used as a tool to attempt to silence dissent, and to harass and arbitrarily prosecute individuals and civil society organizations who are peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, opinion and association.” Hwang is expected to continue or even enhance the use of the law, which civic activists strongly oppose.
Freedom of speech is being limited at the same time that many ordinary Koreans are more frustrated with the economy and with a perceived economic inequality. According to data released last week by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, fewer families are achieving the Korean dream of upward mobility. The study found that 35.4 percent of poor families made it out of poverty in 2005-06, but that number shrank to 31.3 percent in 2008-09. Though more recent data isn’t available, the numbers for the years after 2009 are almost certainly bleaker, say analysts.
During her campaign, Park, the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, made promises of job creation and expanded welfare in an effort to address these issues. She is already being accused of backpedaling, having removed all references to “economic democratization” – her umbrella term – in a list of five major goals her administration submitted last week to the public.
South Koreans will be looking for progress on her campaign promises soon, with the hope that Park will follow through on pledges she made while seeking the presidency. “In order to gain the trust of [the] young generation, she should keep the promises she made during the presidential campaign,” says Mr. Bong.