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THE WORLD

Ex-Ruler's Kin Walks Softly in His Footsteps

S. Korea: The daughter of former dictator Park Chung Hee may run for president. But unlike his iron fist, hers would be a gentler hand, she says.

April 02, 2002|BARBARA DEMICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — In the tradition of powerful men and their ambitious daughters in Asian politics, there is yet another new face with a familiar name. This time it is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, a dictator who ruled South Korea through force and fear for nearly two decades until his assassination in 1979.

After a relatively uneventful term in the National Assembly, Park Geun Hye stunned the political establishment recently by announcing that she was quitting the conservative opposition party and planning to start her own organization.

She has hinted that she will run for president to replace incumbent Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident whom--as the small world of South Korean politics would have it--her father tried to have murdered at least once in the 1970s.

Park's possible candidacy is filled with such quirks and contradictions. Although she is political royalty, she says her new party will bring fresh blood to the arena. And though she blatantly appeals to nostalgia among some for the stability of her father's strong-arm rule, her pitch focuses on democratic reform.

"Different times need different types of leadership," Park, 50, said during an interview in her National Assembly office, a tidy room decorated with orchids and political kitsch from her father's rule. "My father was criticized as a dictator, but that should not overshadow his accomplishments in restructuring the country. He brought Korea out of 5,000 years of poverty. What he left unaccomplished was democratization of the system."

The latest polls show that Park would come in a distant third, with no more than 15% of the vote, if she runs in the Dec. 19 election. But whether it is the undeniable glow of celebrity or the novelty of being a woman eyeing the top spot, Park is commanding far more than her share of attention in the race. The Korean-language version of Newsweek recently put Park on its cover, labeling her South Korea's Indira Gandhi--a daughter who took power after her father's death.

Kim, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000, is barred by law from seeking another five-year term. And all those who are hoping to succeed him are relative political midgets in the shadow of his towering presence.

"She is the only political leader who can gather a crowd when she goes to deliver a speech," said Park Jai Chang, a political scientist at Sook Myong Women's University in Seoul, who is no relation.

Park Geun Hye, a thin, delicate-looking woman, is said to be the spitting image of her popular mother, who was shot to death in 1974 by an assassin aiming for Park Chung Hee. The oldest of the ruling couple's three children, Park was summoned home from her studies in France to serve as first lady. She attended social functions with her father until his 18-year rule was ended by a bullet fired by his intelligence chief.

Under the next military dictator, Chun Doo Hwan, Park was banished from public life lest she attract a political following. She confined herself to largely ceremonial jobs on university boards and foundations until 1998, when she was elected to the National Assembly as a member of the conservative Grand National Party.

Park's resume is somewhat thin for a politician seeking national leadership. In addition to her short stint in the assembly, her main qualification is the five years she served as South Korea's de facto first lady.

"The first lady's position is not an easy job," Park said in the interview.

Referring to South Korea's equivalent of the White House, she noted: "The Blue House is a place where you encounter worries from day to night. If there is a drought in the country or if there are armed commandos penetrating from the North, you have a crisis. I watched my father's anxieties for years. The experience made me very attentive to this country and gave me a sense of obligation that I should contribute somehow."

Politically, much of her appeal comes from a grudging admiration here for her father, who is widely credited with engineering the "economic miracle" that lifted South Korea from poverty even though he is considered a tyrant who impeded the growth of democracy.

Notwithstanding her slim chance of winning, Park has already had an impact on the presidential race. She resigned Feb. 28 from the GNP, complaining about party leader Lee Hoi Chang's dictatorial manner in handpicking assembly candidates. It was Lee who four years earlier tapped Park for office.

Until Park quit, Lee was the favorite to become the next president. But Park's move eroded support for him. He was forced last week to resign as party chief, and the latest polls show him as much as 17 percentage points behind the favorite from the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, former dissident and human rights lawyer Roh Moo Hyun.

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