12.10.2012

Park Geun-hye: [Female] Presidential Candidate

Park Geun-hye: Female Presidential Candidate

Read other posts by Tamara Gater here. 
“The time is ripe for the nation to have a strong female leadership as the harsh economic reality facing grass-root citizens calls upon a leader who can sacrifice herself like a mother for the sake of people’s livelihoods.” - Park Geun- Hye[1]
In the bid to become Korea’s first female president, Park Guen Hye has been type cast in a double role of leader and mother. In politics, everyone has a role to play and this year, the theatre of Korean presidential elections offers a unique performance of Shakespeare’s renowned Merchant of Venice. While a tragedy of comedies it may have been in the late 16th century England; this week in Seoul, the curtains are being drawn for the final act. 

[Scene 1] Enter, the merchant Antonio artfully played by DUP’s very own – Moon Jae In. Like Antonio, Moon Jae In is happy to help his friends but unfortunately like Antonio’s ships, Moon Jae In’s policies are lost at sea. So he willingly sings a contract with Shylock promising things he, himself is not quite sure he can give, since all his good intentions may very well be a shipwreck. Since Shylock asks for no interest on repayments, this alliance between them seems most advantageous to Antonio who intentionally fails to acknowledge the ‘pound of flesh’ clause.

[Scene 2] Lights dim, a giant ‘Ahn lab’ logo flashes up on stage. Young students in the audience jeer and clap. Enter Shylock, the moneylender who despite his business success is treated as an outsider, played by the independent Ahn Cheol Soo. Like Shylock, Ahn’s grievance is against a system which sees people like Antonio flourish while he himself is barred from furthering his ambition. So he agrees to support Antonio in the hopes of getting something in return. Where Shylock wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh, Ahn wishes the alliance with Moon to propel his own political career. Yet in the end, Shylock walked away with less than what he started out with and at present Ahn too has little to show for his efforts.

[Scene 3] Sombre songs from the 70’s resonate through the auditorium. Those from the Gyeongsang in the audience sing along. Enter Portia, the daughter of a man long dead whose memory lives on with his daughter, played by the solitary figure of Park Geun Hye. Indeed, this solitude is where the characters of Portia and Park Geun Hye differ. Unlike Portia’s father who chose a husband for her from his grave through the use of a clever riddle, Park Chung Hee’s sudden assassination prevented him from arranging his daughter’s marriage. Today 33 years later, Park Geun Hye is as much criticised for being unmarried as she is for being her father’s daughter.

Perhaps ‘criticised’ is too light of a word. She is downright ridiculed on two ends of the spectrum. On the one side, Hwang Sang-min, a professor of psychology at the prestigious Yonsei University, has publicly dehumanised[2] Park Geun Hye by saying on a talk show, that:
“[In Korean society, the role of a woman] is defined by marrying a husband, giving birth and raising a child. That’s someone you call a woman. Just because her reproductive organs are different from a man’s, you don’t call her a woman…Park never played the role of woman, although she has female genitals”[3]
Moreover, according to Professor Hwang’s definition of a woman’s role in Korean society, Park Geun Hye is prevented from making a contribution to Korean society through her failure to fulfil her duty as a woman, by which he means wife and mother. So in basic terms, Professor Hwang’s argument is founded on the premise that Park Geun Hye’s involvement in the public domain is made void by the fact that she has not created a life for herself in the private domain.
While on the other end of the spectrum, Park Geun Hye’s own campaign manager, Kim Soon-joo has proclaimed that:
Her[Park Guen Hye] [virginal] life has been dedicated to the state and as such it is no exaggeration to call it ‘marriage to the state.’[4]
So the flipside to Professor Hwang’s argument is that that Park Geun Hye has compromised a life in the private domain in order to be involved wholeheartedly in the public domain. So in other words, if a woman is not married with children, then she is either altogether not a woman, or she should make a sacrifice to the public domain in order to compensate for her deficiencies in the private sphere. So Park Geun Hye, 60 and single, has only but one choice - to become ‘married to the state’ and to ‘sacrifice herself for the people’.[5]
A message clearly conveyed by the ad campaign released by the Park Geun Hye’s team last week. If I could offer words to the images of this 60 second video clip, they would read “my solitude is my sacrifice.”
Simply put, a woman may enter the public sphere so long as she excels in the private sphere. Do you remember when you were in high school and asked your parents if you could join the sports team? Their answer would usually go something like ‘yes, but only if it doesn’t distract you from your studies and you keep your grades up.’ The same principle applies here. Because in the eyes of society, a woman’s career is an extracurricular activity, in order to gain admission, she must first pass the preliminary requirements of successfully managing the private sphere. In this case, Park Guen Hye is especially disadvantaged because being unmarried means that there are no photo ops where her husband is snapped with a ‘Vote Park Geun Hye’ badge pinned to his business suit which translates into an A+ in the private to public sphere entrance exam.

The lines between the private and public sphere are as clearly marked today as they were in Shakespeare’s time, when only men were allowed to act on stage. Luckily, in the Korean theatre of presidential elections, we have both men and women up on centre stage. Yet, although the candidates are auditioning for the role of President, the audience are judging the women’s, and here namely Park Guen’s Hye’s talent on how well she plays her role of woman. In the play of Merchant of Venice, the character of Portia removed this judgement and forced the audience to focus on her skill as a lawyer by appearing in court in a disguise of a man. So maybe there is a lesson in that and in the play for the top job at the Blue House, Park Geun Hye should be encouraged to come without a disguise, not without her womanhood.



[1] Kang, Hyun-kyung, ‘Ice Princess’ finally plays gender card’ The Korea Times, 30 October, 2012
[2] The Collins Dictionary online defines ‘dehumanise’ as ‘1. to deprive of human qualities’ and ‘2. to render mechanical, artificial, or routine.’ By debasing Park Geun Hye as a woman, yet having made an anatomical distinction between her and a man, Hwang Sang-min has deprived Park Geun Hye of human qualities and has rendered her neither man nor woman due to the fact that she has neither husband nor children. [Online at] http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/dehumanize
[3] Ser Myo-ja, ‘Park plays the gender card to draw contrast’, Korea Joongang Daily, 08 November 2012, [online at] http://koreajoongangdaily.joinsmsn.com/news/article/article.aspx?aid=2962007
[4] Justin C ‘Presidential Candidate Park Geun-hye is ‘Married to the State’, Korea Bang, 9 November 2012, [online at] http://www.koreabang.com/2012/stories/presidential-candidate-park-geun-hye-is-married-to-the-state.html
[5] Interestingly enough, a man’s claim to be ‘the father of his nation’ or even the term ‘fatherland’, traditionally implies left wing patriotism. Think Francisco Franco in Spain, Stalin in Russia and of course Kim Il Sung in North Korea.