The Dictator's Daughter

The heir of a controversial South Korean autocrat is now the country's first female president. Can she emerge from his shadow?

In mid-November, a prominent South Korean wood-cut artist displayed a painting depicting conservative presidential candidate Park Geun-hye cringing as she gives birth to a baby resembling her father, the deceased dictator Park Chung-hee. Officials from Park's ruling Saenuri Party quickly responded, telling reporters that the work was an assault on women and resembled Nazi propaganda; nevertheless, the crass image resonated with some South Koreans. The artist, Hong Sung-dam, a former democracy activist, said the work was a commentary on how memories of Park Chung-hee continue to influence South Korean politics. "Park's supporters tend to blindly worship her as if she is a goddess … but that's not the way voters in a democratic society should support a politician," he told Agence France-Presse.

Park has just won the South Korean presidential election, but that does not mean she'll easily escape her father's divisive legacy, or her own complicated history. At a choir performance in 1974, the 22-year-old engineering student witnessed her mother, the then-first lady, get killed by an assassin acting under orders from North Korea; he had been aiming for her father. Because she was the eldest daughter, Park's first political position was to replace her mother in the ceremonial role of first lady. Five years later, South Korea's intelligence chief murdered her father. Park disappeared from the public eye; she spent the rest of the 20th century running a lineup of charities and offering the occasional television interview.

But over the past decade and a half, the unmarried admirer of Queen Elizabeth I has engineered a remarkable political rise, cultivating an image as a reserved and morally upright leader. From 1998 until May 2012, she served as a national assemblywoman in Daegu, a southeastern city that was long her father's support base. In 2004, after the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) faced a public relations crisis for its failed attempt to impeach South Korea's president, party elders appointed Park as its chairwoman and de facto spokeswoman. In May 2006, while Park was stumping for a Seoul mayoral candidate, a man jumped on stage and slashed her face with a box cutter. Her steadfastness and bravery -- she spent a week in the hospital and took no time off from campaigning -- helped her party win back the majority in 2006 and earned her the nickname "Election Queen."

In 2007, however, her growing popularity wasn't yet sufficient to land her the GNP's presidential nomination, which the party instead gave to her rival, Lee Myung-bak, who was seen as a more experienced and pragmatic candidate. So Park went on to lead a separate GNP faction, somewhat outside the party mainstream. Over the next four years, she tried to separate her persona from Lee, who was gradually garnering disapproval from the public.

In early 2012, the GNP, struggling with low approval ratings and stung by several corruption scandals, decided Park would once again be its savior. Re-christened the "New Frontier Party" and helmed by Park, it won 40 percent of the seats in this April's legislative elections -- a surprise victory for a party that many feared was withering into irrelevance.

The stern and steely Park's rise to power is now complete -- she was elected South Korea's first female president on Wednesday, but the race was closer than many once thought. In the days leading up to the vote, polls had Park only 1.5 to 3.5 percentage points ahead of her liberal challenger, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, compared with a 7.5-point lead in early December. Unlike Moon, who wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy, Park resisted calling for corporate tax increases while promising an expansion of the welfare state, a hazily defined platform she called "economic democracy." (Although both candidates condemned North Korea's Dec. 12 rocket launch, they both seemed willing to stand by their pledge to renew negotiations with Pyongyang.) But policy wasn't the biggest issue in this race.

Park was once considered a shoo-in, but her standing seemed to be wavering because her father's legacy has alienated a young generation of urbanites who've grown up with democracy -- and who feel indifferent to the dictatorial era. During the 1970s, the elder Park faced a flaring protest movement but did not live to see the country's first democratic elections in 1987. Today, the left continues to be inimical toward Park the elder, attacking his daughter by association. This July, her approval rating fell when she defended her father, saying that he "made the unavoidable, best possible choice" in launching his 1961 coup d'état, though she reiterated an earlier apology to victims of her father's rule. During his brutish reign from 1961 to 1979, Park the elder imprisoned political opponents, often claiming they were "communists" who sympathized with North Korea. Nevertheless, older voters still tend to admire Park for fostering South Korea's economic growth by encouraging exports and building up the conglomerates, or chaebol, so important to the country's economy.

South Korea has done well. It is now the world's 14th-largest economy, boasting a per capita GDP of $31,200. Citizens, however, are fed up with corruption in politics and the chaebol, which account for nearly half of South Korea's GDP. Park's intraparty rival, current President Lee Myung-bak, is the former CEO of the chaebol Hyundai Engineering and Construction; remarks like his January warning against curbing the power of South Korea's conglomerates have led to criticisms that he's too close to big business. Park's success at the polls came down to undecided, middle-aged voters valuing the uprightness that her campaign had been trying to communicate, and overlooking her family's history of despotism.

Park's campaign struggled with maintaining that necessary image of incorruptibility. In early October, her former campaign co-manager confessed to taking almost $27,000 in illegal donations from a businessman before April's legislative elections. Then, on Oct. 26, the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper claimed it had secretly recorded a conversation between the public relations chief of an influential news broadcaster, MBC, and the chairman of the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, a trust that owns stakes in the media outlet. Park ran the foundation as chairwoman from 1994 to 2005, and the newspaper claimed that the two executives discussed a plan to sell stakes in the outlet and put the proceeds toward helping her bid. (Both MBC and the foundation have denied the claims, and prosecutors are looking into whether the Hankyoreh illegally recorded the conversation.)

Whether or not the allegations are true, what makes the scandal sting is that in 2010, South Korea's now-defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with unearthing crimes under Park the elder's dictatorship, determined that he had forcibly appropriated the foundation's predecessor from a businessman in 1961. Park responded, unconvincingly, that because she headed the group, she knows it is "cleaner than the other foundations out there." None of this destines Park to failure. But now that Park is a democratically elected president in a country once firmly ruled by her father, the question is whether she can convincingly emerge from his shadow.

Eds.: This article has been updated to reflect the results of the South Korean presidential elections on Oct. 19. 



The U.N.'s Haitian Shell Game

Ban Ki-moon still isn't taking responsibility for Haiti's cholera outbreak.

Those following the two-year-old saga of the United Nations and cholera in Haiti were startled by a pair of headlines last week. "UN launches ambitious $2.2 billion plan to eliminate cholera in Haiti, DR," trumpeted the Associated Press on Dec. 11, reporting on a press conference by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Reuters echoed: "UN's Ban launches bid to stamp out cholera in Haiti."

This seemed like very big news for two reasons. First, such a plan would indeed be ambitious. In the 25 months since Vibrio cholerae El Tor bacteria was confirmed in Haiti for the first time, 7,805 people have died, along more than 400 in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The waterborne pathogen has contaminated nearly every mountain village and barrio stream on the Caribbean island. Yet Ban told reporters at the event that eradicating the disease was a matter of will. "Science," the secretary-general explained, "tells us it can be done."

This would have been the second surprise. Throughout the epidemic, science has been the last thing the U.N.'s political leaders have wanted to talk about.

The crisis began in October 2010, when Haitians began dying en masse along the rural Artibonite River. As Haiti had no known history with cholera -- there had never been a confirmed case before -- suspicion quickly focused on the horrendous sanitation at a U.N. base. The installation was home to a detachment of Nepalese soldiers, next to one of the river's main tributaries. U.N. officials in Port-au-Prince actively tried to dismiss the claims as pernicious rumors while mounting a clandestine and amateurish investigation behind the scenes. Within days of the outbreak, stories in the international press already showed not only that the Haitian rumors about the base were true and that the U.N. was dissembling, but that the strain of cholera matched a current outbreak in Nepal. The soldiers had traveled from that outbreak to Haiti just before Haiti's epidemic began.  

That was two years ago. Since then scores of epidemiologists -- including those appointed by the U.N. itself -- have unearthed overwhelming evidence supporting the hypothesis that the soldiers carried the disease and introduced it to Haiti through negligent sanitation. In response, U.N. officials have ignored, dismissed, or mischaracterized it all. For the last year, they have done so in the face of a legal action brought on behalf of thousands of cholera victims' families -- demanding, among other things, massive U.N. investment in Haitian water and sanitation.

So if the secretary-general really did announce a multibillion-dollar effort to clean up Haiti's long-degraded water systems -- even without an admission of responsibility -- it would be front-page stuff. But, alas, the headlines were wrong.

Far from launching an ambitious new initiative, the U.N. was merely repackaging a still-unfunded, year-old effort. Buried in the U.N. press release, in a line only the Miami Herald seemed to notice, was an admission that the "Initiative for the Elimination of Cholera in the Island of Hispaniola" had already been kicked off in January 2012 by the Haitian and Dominican governments with the support of a few U.N. agencies. The "$2.2 billion" figure meanwhile is purely aspirational. The initiative is almost totally unfunded.

Reached by phone, U.N. spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci explained that Ban's press conference was meant simply to raise the Hispaniolan initiative's profile. "What the U.N. is trying to do is boost that initiative ... so it can get the funding it needs," she said. But the organization is not exactly leading by example. As announced in the press release, the U.N. is throwing in just $23.5 million for the 10-year project -- 1 percent of the requested funds. The organization also says it has spent a total of $118 million responding to the cholera epidemic to date. By contrast, it has budgeted $677 million for peacekeeping operations in Haiti for 2012-13 alone.

Ban did announce $215 million in bilateral donations to the initiative from Spain, Japan, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. But this was misleading as well. None of that money was new, according to a breakdown provided by the U.N. Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Nearly all had already been pledged in the spring of 2010 for rebuilding from the catastrophic earthquake earlier that year. The lone sliver of recent money -- Japan's $800,000 -- was given to UNICEF in response to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. All those funds were already earmarked for water and sanitation projects that haven't been completed.

Shifting around aid money -- making the same promises over and over without fulfilling them -- is an old game in the development world. But in this case it's especially bold. Donors have been hammered for failing to live up to their pledges for post-quake rebuilding in Haiti. Nearly half the funds pledged after the earthquake for 2010-12 have not been delivered. (The United States has been among the worst of the holdouts, disbursing to date just over a quarter of programmable funds of a $906 million pledge originally made for 2010.) Maybe donors will now promise $2.2 billion more, or just re-label their old pledges once again. But if history is any guide, it's unlikely they'll pay either way.

Whatever the U.N.'s goal in organizing the Dec. 11 press conference, the world body is benefiting from the confusion. One of the primary means by which the U.N. has deflected blame since the beginning has been to insist that efforts to find the source of the epidemic would detract from fighting it. By relaunching an existing Haitian-Dominican effort under the guise of a U.N. initiative, the world body can once again claim to be too busy saving Haitian lives to comment on how those lives were put in danger in the first place. It took no time for this to happen. When an AP reporter asked on Dec. 11 whether humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher thought the U.N. caused the cholera epidemic, he refused to comment, saying: "My focus is on today."

It's easy to understand why the U.N. doesn't want to focus on yesterday. Between 1998 and 2008, some $4.8 billion in aid was spent in Haiti, with little to show in terms of development. The international community pledged billions more after the earthquake, but after nearly three years, the promised reconstruction has barely begun. Every time there is a crisis, big promises and fanciful dollar totals grab headlines, only to limp out of the gate. Another event for the cholera initiative is expected in January, when officials are set to release more details about the plan. It may well be pitched as yet another "launch." There will likely be some new donations to announce, and appeals for further support. But while a few journalists might again be thrown off the trail, the U.N. can't evade responsibility forever.

nd Tom Murphy