In 1940, American President Franklin Roosevelt vowed that his countrymen would absolutely not partake in World War II. Upon Japan’s attack of Pearl Harbor, this promise was broken; within an hour of Roosevelt’s speech on that dreaded “date which will live in infamy,” US Congress declared war on Japan.
In 1956, Chinese Communist Party Chairman, Mao Zedong, promised: “The policy of letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend is designed to promote the flourishing of the arts and the progress of science.” Through this Hundred Flowers Campaign, Chinese citizens were encouraged to voice their opinions of the party, supposedly stimulating intellectual diversity. Or so they were duped into believing. Mao broke this promise and began a harsh crackdown on all dissenters. The guarantee of free speech was briefly flaunted by the Communist regime in front of its people like a mirage of water in the desert, and then immediately suppressed with an iron fist.
This is hardly shocking. A leader's ascension to power is often followed by broken promises. It should not surprise us, then, that South Korea’s newly elected President Park Geun-hye has followed a similar code of conduct.
Despite having made pledges that were remarkably similar to her left-wing opponent, Mun Jae-in, during a hard fought campaign in late 2012, a quick glance at her track record shows that her promises are not exactly, well, promises.
Ms. Park’s hullabaloo campaign is understandable: she had to reel in popular support. As the Canadian newspaper, The Toronto Star underlines, South Korea’s first female President had to appeal to right-wing and center voters, as many were deeply dissatisfied with former President Lee Myung-bak’s administration. Being staunchly conservative, she also had to please the big South Korean corporations, which “have grown so powerful they threaten to eclipse national laws.”
At the same time, she had to bear in mind her largest group of fans: Korea’s elderly, who see in her a reflection of her father, Park Chung-hee, the country’s military strongman and dictator who gleefully suppressed democratization from 1963 to 1979 until his assassination.
Although the elderly probably long for those days because they were in the prime of youth, not because Korea was better off then than now (the per capita income in 1960 was on par with Sudan’s), let us give them the benefit of the doubt and suppose they voted for Ms. Park’s policies. Al Jazeera notes that one of President Park’s pledges during the campaign was to provide benefits for Koreans over 65 years old, such as doubling their pensions. However, this promise was scaled down even prior to taking office this year. In its place, she proposed to implement “a means test to determine pension payments.”
The Korean newspaper, Hankyoreh explains that the President’s conservative Saenuri Party is now saying that the funds for the initially promised pension schemes may not exist. Instead, “Park’s presidential transition committee released a detailed outline of the new administration’s policy tasks that included changes to the pension system that would provide citizens over 65 with a basic pension between 40,000 won (US $36) and 200,000 won ($178).”
This miserly plan, termed the “citizens happiness pension” (which is reminiscent of North Korean slogans) is making national pension subscribers receive even less than expected.
What’s more, Park’s system encourages enrollment while reducing finances, thus the problem is twofold: it increases the burden on the next generation who will likely face greater pension dilemmas in their old age.
Professor Kim Yeon-myung of Chung-Ang University says, “It would be worse that the current system where people can receive both a basic old age pension and a national pension at the same time […] it’s actually becoming more unfair.”
Perhaps Ms. Park’s promise was too big to keep. And things are only looking worse: not only is Korea’s income gap among seniors deepening, but the country also has a super-ageing population problem that will result in more elderly in subsequent years.
King Wu said, "I have ten able ministers." Confucius said, "[...] yet there was a woman among them. The able ministers were no more than nine men.”
– Analects, 8.20
Another portion of Ms. Park’s electorate were women who hoped that Korea’s first female president would do much for them in a historically male-dominated Confucian society.
Yet during the campaign kickoffs in November last year, an article on South Korea’s government mouthpiece, Yonhap News evinced that income gap by gender was the widest amongst OECD nations: on average, women earn nearly 40% less than men. Upon her inauguration, she had only chosen two women to join her in top positions – two less than her liberal male predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
The Korean daily, Kyunghyang Shinmun, also points out that there are no women among her 12 senior presidential advisers. Instead, she has appointed top positions to people with ties to her father, causing a flurry of discontent.
The hopes were high that President Park would be more mindful towards South Korean women, and perhaps begin to tackle gender inequality. But as the East Asia Gazette has claimed before, Korea remains a country where sexual harassment is an enormous social hurdle.
On February 27, 2013, KoreaBridge published an article saying that a study conducted at Dongha University in the southern port city of Busan revealed alarming results: 55.3% of the nurses surveyed had been victims of sexual harassment. Among nurses who worked for more than ten years, nearly 70% reported abuse.
On 22 March, The Korea Times released an article regarding a new sex scandal involving influential figures such as an official at the National Intelligence Service and the vice justice minister Kim Hak-eui, among others, who gathered in luxurious villas where sex was provided by young women.
This is absolutely nothing new. It seems that Park Geun-hye’s Presidency is not enough to shake off hundreds of years of cultural cruft, despite her promise to "expand economic participation by women and promote gender equality."
70% of campaign promises, watered-down
It wouldn’t be too bad if the only promises Park Geun-hye had broken were those relating to pension schemes and bridging gender inequality.
An article on the liberal Hankyoreh explains that this is not the case. According to the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ), President Park Geun-hye omitted or backtracked on nearly half the key pledges from her election campaign in her list of governance tasks for the new administration.
Out of the pledges made during elections, 70 were absent or watered-down from the 140 Policy Tasks outlined by the Cheong Wa Dae (Blue House).
In the case of real estate, her policies were “transformed into governance tasks aimed at shoring up the real estate bubble rather than achieving stability in housing for the working class.” Ten out of twenty-seven pledges resulted in reduced economic democracy, such as lack of punishment for Fair Trade Act violations.
Eight out of eighteen core pledges relating to jobs, specifically to temporary workers in the public sector were missing.
Absent were also policies for prosecutorial reform in politics, decentralization of authority and balanced development. Yet it would be foolish to expect these promises to be kept from the daughter of a former dictator.
Twenty-eight key pledges on public health and welfare were also omitted, and another eight were diluted due to the controversy she was caught up in over raising taxes.
Instead of all these, a decree was recently passed at a Cabinet meeting and came into effect on March 22 that fines people who engage in excessive public exposure, writes the Korea Herald. Citizens who expose their bodies too much, provoking “shameful feelings and discomfort to others” will be fined 50,000 won ($44). Maybe she hopes this will make up for the lacking pension funds for the elderly.
As one netizen remarked, if excessively short sleeves or skirts are to be fined, what should people make of swimming suits?
Such policies are reminiscent of similar restrictions on skirt lengths in the 1970s, during Park Chung-hee’s authoritarian rule.
Promises, Promises, Promises
As aforementioned, broken political promises are nothing new. The saying goes, all is fair in love and war, but the word politics should also have been squeezed in there somewhere.
The key to winning elections lies in promising to cure all the ills of society, from corruption, to taxes to education and pollution. But these promises are an illusion, a utopia that is fed to an overly optimistic and dissatisfied portion of the population in order to win its vote during a tight race. The lower the social satisfaction, the greater the lies.
Voters must rely on a sixth sense when choosing a candidate, and notice, for instance, that Ms. Park’s promises of economic revival, citizen happiness and a flourishing culture are merely catchphrases. During her inaugural speech, no mention was made of improvements to democracy, reconciliation of party differences or human rights. And while she promised to extend a hand to rival North Korea, recent nuclear and missile tests as well as alleged hacking attacks to South Korean computer networks make us wonder whether North Korea was right in saying "a Park administration would merely be an extension of Mr. Lee’s." If matters escalate, she, like President Roosevelt, might have to also break this promise.