SEOUL — There is an expression in Korean — “men-boong” — which means feeling shell-shocked to the point of mental collapse. My university students here are saying they are completely men-boong with the election of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s next president. And many of us following South Korea’s growing pains as a democracy can understand why.
Park is the daughter of South Korea’s former president, Park Chung-hee. He spearheaded the country’s economic miracle, but his 18 years in power are remembered as a very dark period for democracy and human rights.
To the younger generation, that Park Geun-hye would run for president is offensive. That their parents and grandparents would elect her is repulsive.
The election result exposes a generation gap: Older voters remember the country’s poverty before Park Chung-hee took power in a 1961 military coup. They lived through South Korea’s rags-to-riches transition; they still revere the former president. Some of their children and grandchildren feel the same way. Every year, I have my students write a letter to a past or present head of state, and occasionally students pen valentines to Park Chung-hee.
Most of their classmates, like most South Koreans under 40, see Park Chung-hee differently. They never knew the poverty their elders escaped. For them, Park Chung-hee and the two military men who followed him as president in the 1980s were scoundrels who ordered imprisonment, torture and, in some cases, death sentences for people they saw as threats to their authority.
At first glance, the election of Park Geun-hye as South Korea’s first female president seems like a milestone. Korean culture is still very male-dominated, even chauvinistic, and Park’s election could be a golden opportunity to improve the standing of women.
For the younger generation, though, Park Geun-hye embodies a throwback to the bad old days. They know the stories of student activists who were labeled communists and had to hide to avoid getting hauled in for questioning by the police. These people feel betrayed by their elders who voted for Park.
Democracy advocates around the world are also concerned. South Korea’s democratic credentials have been slipping under the outgoing president, Lee Myung-bak. International human rights monitors are worried about an increase in prosecutions as a tactic to silence critics of the government. Freedom House even downgraded South Korea’s press freedom ranking in 2011 from “free” to “partly free” because of government meddling in the broadcasting industry.
But the South Korea of Gangnam Style is well beyond the South Korea of Park Chung-hee. Internet media and alternative news outlets are reshaping public debate. South Korea now has its own versionof “Saturday Night Live,” and the skits lampooning the presidential candidates were a hit — the male actor who played Park Geun-hye presumably has a steady gig for the next five years. Younger Koreans are addicted to a podcast that combines the satire of the Colbert Report with biting political invective targeting conservative politicians. The program is called “I’m a Petty-Minded Creep” — a shot at Lee Myung-bak — and the title just might become even more harsh once Park Geun-hye takes office. The big television networks have become more deferential to the ruling party, but South Korea’s netizens have no plans to hand her a free pass.
Winning the election with 51.6 percent of the vote is one thing, but it will take much more for Park Geun-hye to win widespread confidence and trust. And South Korea has a tragic history when it comes to presidents — corruption has been rampant over the years, and not a single president since the country’s founding in 1948 has left office in high public esteem. Is there any chance Park Geun-hye could break this cycle just as she has broken through the proverbial glass ceiling for women? As a first step, she needs to show her country and the world that she is wholeheartedly dedicated to advancing a robust and transparent model of democracy.
Hans Schattle is an associate professor of political science at Yonsei University.