December 21, 2012 by travelinggrits
They just elected their first female president.
Disclaimer: I’m not a particularly politically inclined person. I skip the political commentary in the newspaper, and I rarely use policy debates as small talk. But this year I had the unique opportunity to follow two presidential elections that only coincide once every 20 years (the American election is every four, the South Korean one every five), and I resolved to take advantage of this chance to be a more attentive observer of the process.
After all, my opinion was on the hot seat. Who will you vote for? Why? It was important to have a firm, clear answer, not just for those whose English was limited but also for a few informed individuals I met who had even watched the American presidential debates. I took pride in my commitment to participating in the election process by submitting my absentee ballot.
The swirling winds of Hurricane Sandy and the resulting political storm reported in the New York Times seemed as distant and unthinkable as Dorothy’s tornado to Oz. Even following the American Election Day was a fantastical feat of time travel. As millions of Americans watched TV reports into the late evening from their couches, I checked web updates of the Electoral College votes from my desktop between classes and over my lunch break 14 hours ahead.
When the results came in, I gave a moderate whoop in the privacy of my office, printed a sign and pasted it on the door. At the next class change, one student plastered his face to the office window, happily yelled “OBAMA!” and ran away. If that’s any indication of how foreign policy will proceed for the next four years, I’m happy with that.
My colleagues and friends knew the results, but there was little fanfare other than a few inquiries about my reaction to the news. November was a month of political lull, and I was a little surprised that the political action had not picked up the pace for South Korea. It was just the eye of the storm, however, as the blast of political promotion appeared overnight several weeks later.
Literally, overnight. When I noticed signs featuring all seven candidates plastered at intersections across town one day, and I wondered how I had been so oblivious to these advertisements before. My school principal later told me that the candidates are restricted to advertising outdoors and on-air no more than 22 days before the election. I wouldn’t mind if the U.S. took a page from Korea’s book on this one; the political discussion and campaign materials start the election cycle so early that political fatigue is inevitable.
While running some errands one chilly evening soon after, I heard a snappy electronic beat carrying from the nearest intersection. I assumed that a small festival had set up camp at the nearby market. I rounded the corner and found a truck with a large high-definition TV screen mounted on the back, blaring a song extolling candidate Park Geun Hye accompanied by an animated video of a cartoon figure with an oversized head. Rows of volunteers clad in bright red lined the street on both sides and waved their hands to the ditty.
In this case, animation was not intended as ridicule. Web advertisements on Korea’s major search engine, Naver, also featured energetic caricatures, and the final election results on mainstream television featured victorious and dejected miniatures.
Although the campaign process differed in some ways, in other ways the election wasn’t too far from its American precedent. Even though seven candidates competed, the decision was essentially neck-and-neck between the conservative and liberal party candidates, Park Geun Hye and Moon Jae In. Many Koreans agreed that, like in America, most younger people would vote for the liberal candidate, and the older generations would tend toward the conservative party. Like dependable red and blue states, there were some provinces that were staunchly supportive one or the other. I even watched an episode of SNL-Korea that spoofed the top three candidates in a Tina Fey/ Sarah Palin manner.
The election might have been thrown by a third man, Ahn Cheol Soo. He’s got quite an impressive resume: businessman (he created South Korea’s largest antivirus software company), professor (at one of the nation’s top three universities), physician. It seems that the only line left for him to fill was president. But he pulled out of the election in late November to try to unify the vote against Park Geun Hye and the ruling conservative party. One Korean friend seemed to think he “chickened out,” so to speak; he had apparently resigned from a previous political campaign for office in Seoul.
Even with the vote united against Park, she still held the majority. History was also on her side. Park’s father, Park Chung Hee, was one of the nation’s early presidents (read: dictator). Despite his authoritarian grip over the nation, many remember him positively for his role in launching South Korea’s remarkable economic growth. Coincidentally, he is from Gumi, my placement location, and my students took a field trip to his birthplace this year. In the weeks leading up to the election, my host mother refused to tell me who she would vote for, first saying she was still deciding and later insisting it was a secret, in a manner similar to my mother in the States. But I knew.
The voting process was astonishingly short and sweet. I had an appointment at 1, but my host mother invited me to tag along as she went to vote around a quarter until noon. We took a short walk to the polling location, and I could see a line forming. But no sweat. My host mother checked in and gestured at a water cooler, asking me to make us some tea. I had barely dunked the tea bags in the steaming paper cups before she was approaching the polling booth. She strode up to the structure, lifted the curtain, stamped her decision on a paper card, and slipped her vote in the ballot box before I had time to give the tea bags a swirl. We took longer drinking it than the entire voting procedure.
Even with paper ballots, the votes were tallied quickly since only one position was at stake. I arrived home later that evening after my appointment, and the TV station was calling the election for Park. The video footage showed her smiling and working her way through the crowd to her escort car. My host mother beamed from the floor. Park Geun Hye!
Gumi’s loyalty also followed the family tree—82% of the vote there went to Park.
The election of a female president is a milestone in this nation where a patriarchal society is so deeply engrained. On the other hand, some feel that Park is riding the wave of her father’s legacy. She always appears composed, never overly excited even when happy. But you can’t take her calm demeanor to mean she’s submissive. She served as first lady after her mother was assassinated, and she never married. You have to admit that she’s seen a lot, and I can tell that great power lies beneath the surface. The figurehead on this ship of state is headed for smooth seas.
The Korean president can only serve one term. Perhaps this gives them more license to pursue their own initiatives without worrying about constituent approval for a reelection; perhaps it makes them a lame duck president from the start. We’ll see how Park does. This is one political story I’ll keep following, no matter what side of the globe I’m on.