(News Focus) Park's approval ratings boosted by dealings with North Korea
By Chang Jae-soon
SEOUL, Aug. 22 (Yonhap) -- Six months into office, President Park Geun-hye is enjoying solid approval ratings despite a standoff with the main opposition party, an election meddling scandal involving the state intelligence agency, questionable personnel decisions and other blunders.
What props up the high numbers -- between the mid-50s and around 60 percent -- has undoubtedly been the way she has dealt with North Korea. Even critics give her credit for withstanding a torrent of war threats, gaining the upper hand in high-stakes talks on a joint industrial complex and getting Pyongyang to give in to Seoul's demands.
That was something South Koreans have rarely seen in the country's dealings with North Korea, a highly divisive issue where it's hard to find middle ground. Her liberal predecessors were accused of being too soft on Pyongyang and the conservative predecessor of being too inflexible.
"There have been achievements in the South-North relations and diplomacy. She could have faced difficulties right after her inauguration because of the North Korea crisis, but she pulled through well," said Shin Yul, a professor at Seoul's Myongji University.
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.
Starting in early March, Pyongyang 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.
The biggest victim of the high tensions was the joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong, the last-remaining parts of the once-booming reconciliation process. Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew all of its 53,000 workers from the 123 South-run factories in early April, bringing the zone's operations to a halt.
The two sides later began talks on how to reopen the complex, but the negotiations had been deadlocked for weeks due to a tug of war over Seoul's calls for Pyongyang to promise never to unilaterally shut the zone down again, a demand the North had initially dodged.
But as the South took concrete steps toward permanent closure of the factory park, the North gradually backed down and ultimately promised not to shut the zone down "under any circumstances," a concession seen as reflecting Pyongyang's fears of losing a key source of hard currency.
Pyongyang's agreement to reopen the complex marked a victory for the unbending and principled approach Park has taken toward the North. The breakthrough also appeared to satisfy both sides of the ideological spectrum in the South -- liberals calling for reopening the complex and conservatives calling for a greater say in dealings with the North.
The agreement led Park to propose other rapprochement projects, such as setting up reunions for families separated between the two sides and establishing an international peace park on their border. This step-by-step approach to build trust is in line with Park's "Korean Peninsula trust process."
The trustpolitik, the centerpiece of Park's policy on North Korea, calls for the two sides to take small confidence-building measures until enough trust is built between them to discuss more serious issues like the North's nuclear program.
Park won support for the policy from the United States and China -- the two most important nations in handling Pyongyang -- through her visits to Washington in May and Beijing in June. In particular, China's agreement to work closely together with Seoul for Pyongyang's denuclearization is considered a big step forward.
Unlike the external affairs, however, domestic politics have been bumpy.
The main opposition Democratic Party has been out of the National Assembly for weeks, holding party meetings in tents set up at a downtown plaza amid sweltering heat, in a protest urging Park to take more concrete steps about allegations that the state spy agency attempted to influence December's presidential election.
Park has sought to distance herself from the scandal, only saying she neither had any knowledge of the alleged operations by the National Intelligence Service, nor did she benefit from them. She has also rejected the opposition's demand for one-on-one talks, saying such talks should be held in a broader setting, including among ruling party leaders.
Likening the scandal even to the 1960 election rigging that forced the resignation of then-President Rhee Syngman, the opposition has pressured Park to state her position on the scandal more clearly, order a thorough probe into the scandal and overhaul the intelligence agency.
Park has remained silent, with aides saying she has already made her position known.
Adding to her criticism was a tax code proposal for next year.
The proposal, which centered on scaling back tax benefits for salaried workers, sparked anger that the government is trying to squeeze tax revenues from ordinary wage earners to fund her welfare and other campaign projects in violation of her promise not to finance then without tax hikes.
Just four days later, Park ordered a reworking of the proposal.
Personnel selections also remain a point of question for her.
Even from the time when she was preparing to take office after the election, Park has been dogged by criticism that she picks the wrong people for important positions, leading to a series of resignations by nominees amid questions about their ethical standards.
The biggest personnel fiasco was her first spokesman, Yoon Chang-jung, who was sacked in the middle of Park's trip to the U.S. following allegations that he sexually abused a young intern working for him as his secretary during the visit.
Early this month, Park shuffled the presidential office, naming an old political mentor, Kim Ki-choon, as her new chief of staff. The selection drew criticism because Kim, 73, was involved in a high-profile 1992 case of government agency chiefs holding a secret meeting to plot to help then ruling party candidate Kim Young-sam win the presidential election.
The meeting took place just two months after Kim left office as justice minister.
"The problem is domestic affairs," Shin said. "It is difficult for her to receive good points on that part, considering that she appointed people out of the range of public expectations and has not met often with opposition leaders."
Park, known for her emphasis on sticking to principles, says she will focus policy on "normalizing the past abnormalities," such as ending long-overlooked irregularities deeply rooted in many corners of South Korean society, as well as on revitalizing the slumping economy.
"Irregular and corruptive practices that have continued from the past will be rectified so that they will no longer recur," she said in a Liberation Day address last week. "Redoubling my efforts as president for sales diplomacy, I will also do my part to help local businesses enlarge our economic territory on the global stage and provide support for their endeavors."