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(News Focus) N. Korean threats dominate Park's first 100 days in office

2013/06/03 11:46

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, June 3 (Yonhap) -- Far from enjoying the political honeymoon that usually greets new leaders, President Park Geun-hye spent her first 100 days in office wrestling with an unprecedentedly intense stream of bellicose rhetoric from North Korea.

Ironically, however, it is her handling of the war threats from Pyongyang that earned her points and shielded her approval ratings from taking a nosedive despite a string of unforeseen embarrassments, including a sexual abuse scandal involving her first spokesman.

Overall, polling shows that a majority of South Koreans are in support of the way she works.

A Gallup Korea survey put her approval rating at 52 percent while a Media Research poll put the number higher at 65 percent. In both surveys, Park's handling of North Korea was cited as her strongest point. The polls had margins of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points and 3.1 percentage points, respectively.

"The Park Geun-hye government was launched in the middle of a security crisis stemming from North Korea," Chough Soon-hyung, a former seven-term opposition lawmaker known for his non-partisan views of political affairs, said on Yonhap's cable news channel news Y last week.

"In the foreign affairs and security areas, I think President Park did a good job in handling North Korea's threats of provocations in a resolute yet calm manner while sticking to principles," he said of his assessment of Park's presidency ahead of her 100th day in office that falls on Tuesday.

Park was sworn in as South Korea's first female president on Feb. 25, just two weeks after North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, a provocation that sharply escalated fears that Pyongyang might be closer to developing nuclear-capable long-range missiles.

The blast came two months after the North successfully launched a long-range rocket.

Starting in early March, the communist nation unleashed near-daily threats of war against South Korea and the United States in anger over a new U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at punishing the regime for the nuclear test and American-involved military exercises in the South.

Some of the North's threats: declaring the armistice, which halted fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War, null and void; ditching a non-aggression pact with South Korea and vowing to turn Seoul and Washington into "seas of fire" with nuclear attacks.

In response, the U.S. sent nuclear-capable B2 and B-52 bombers for exercises over South Korea, a show of force designed to reaffirm the American commitment to defending the Asian ally. Such a chain reaction had heightened fears that any misstep by either side could lead to armed conflict or even war.

Without making many remarks, Park showed cool-headedness in the face of these threats, ordering the military to ensure readiness and deterrence, assuring the public that their safety won't be endangered, and vowing to break the cycle of rewarding North Korea for bad behavior.

She has also said repeatedly that she is ready for engagement with North Korea under her "Korean Peninsula trust process" policy, a vision that calls for dialogue and exchanges with the North so as to build trust and reduce tensions on the divided peninsula.

But these threats appear to have weighed heavily on her.

Last week, Park gave a hint of how much she has been stressed out by the high tensions with North Korea. As she recalled her first 100 days in office during opening remarks at a lunch meeting Friday with reporters, she spoke only about North Korea.

"Though there are many issues in our society, the biggest one from a broad point of view would be that this situation of continuously escalating tensions from North Korean threats is not coming to an end," Park said during the meeting on a lawn plaza in the presidential compound.

Park said she was so busy with North Korea and other issues to the point that she could hardly sense how the 100 days have passed. She also said she sometimes wished God would have given her "48 hours" a day so that she could better handle all those difficult matters.

North Korea was not the only issue that has plagued her administration.

From the beginning, Park began work with her Cabinet way understaffed -- only the prime minister was in the Cabinet when she took office. She could not install many nominees for government ministers mainly because the main opposition party refused to endorse her government reorganization proposal.

At issue was her plan to transfer the roles of oversight over broadcasting firms from the Korean Broadcasting Commission to the new ministry of science, ICT and future planning because the opposition was concerned that the move could hurt the political neutrality of TV stations.

The standoff was finally resolved, and Park's Cabinet was fully formed only in mid-April, 52 days after her inauguration.

What made matters worse was a string of resignations of some of her ministerial nominees mostly over allegations of ethical lapses, a painful embarrassment that put Park under intense public criticism for picking the wrong people for important positions and insisting on her choices despite questions about their ethical standards.

"There is not much we can say Park did a good job on except that she took a stable stance on North Korea policy," said political analyst Lee Cheol-hee. "Public opinions should be collected and reflected (in policy) but we don't see much of that. The Yoon Chang-jung case is representative of it."

   Yoon, Park's first spokesman, was fired in the middle of her trip to the United States last month following allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances toward a young intern working as his temporary secretary just hours after Park had her first summit with U.S. President Barack Obama.

The shocking case completely overshadowed Park's otherwise successful visit to the U.S., where she and Obama agreed to further upgrade the traditional alliance between the two countries while reaffirming that they are firmly united against threats from North Korea.

Additionally, the economy remains sluggish.

Last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development forecast that South Korea's economy is expected to grow 2.6 percent this year, revising down its earlier outlook. The revision is the latest in a series of growth downgrades.

Recently, the state-run think tank Korea Development Institute also lowered its growth projection from 3 percent to 2.6 percent. The government formulated a 17.3 trillion won (US$15.3 billion) extra budget to boost the economy, but questions have arisen over its effectiveness due in part to the weak Japanese yen.

Under her "creative economy" vision, Park has pledged to boost the economy by creating new business opportunities and more jobs through the fusion of information technology, culture and other realms. But critics say the vision is too vague and lacks specifics.

Park has also been criticized for micromanaging state affairs by issuing meticulously detailed instructions to ministers and government agencies. Critics say this makes officials overly reliant on such instructions in order to not make mistakes, rather than trying new things and working on their own.

"In short, President Park is trying to take care of everything on her own," said Chough, the former lawmaker. "I think the president should not run state affairs like this. She has to delegate more responsibilities to the prime minister, deputy prime minister and ministers."

   Chough said that Park should put greater efforts into foreign affairs and security issues.

"The president made achievements during the visit to the United States and the world is paying attention to her, calling her the 'iron lady.' Rather than making new instructions (about domestic issues), she has to use more of her time and capabilities for security matters."

   jschang@yna.co.kr

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