Since February 2012, South Korea has a woman as president (unique in the Confucian area which includes China, Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, nearly a quarter of the world population), but this does not mean that it has reached equality between the sexes. However, it is an important signal and the election of Park Geun-hye has shown the ability to break with traditional female roles, even in business and in politics.
Sixty year-old, single, daughter of a controversial general-president, the moderate conservative Park has been able to channel onto herself the desire for stability of South Koreans in front of an uncertain internal horizon but especially an international one. For her, the challenges will be especially to resume peace talks with the North, ensure governability in South Korea’s turbulent political life, reduce social inequalities with a review of the welfare state in favour of a rapidly aging population showing large areas of discontent and real poverty.
However, perhaps inevitably, the major challenges are mainly the structural problems of the economy, signalled by the progress after 2012, characterized by the lowest growth rate (2%) since 2010 and requiring concrete measures in order to counter a growing social unrest. The Bank of Korea, estimates that 6.6 million South Koreans are indebted to the point where they can no longer become solvent.
The Samsung power
Among the priorities of the new South Korean government there is a re-qualifying and re-scaling of the immense productive conglomerates (chaebol) which, even if for years have been ‘engine’ of growth, have also, however, defined much of the country’s strategic lines of intervention.
Samsung represents almost a third of the South Korean GDP and in fact conditions much more than the production scene; it is the arbiter of the prospects of an entire nation. “The economy, even if at a slower pace, remains higher than that of any European country and unemployment at 2.8 percent is among the lowest in the world.
The country is also one of the 5 or 6 in the world to have a budget surplus (2.3 per cent last year)”, said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean Studies at the U.S. University of Tufts. “In South Korea, the power is firmly concentrated in the hands of the president; state prosecutors have too much power; the current hierarchical system guarantees those who have power and social status – often acquired by the family – and dominance over those who do not have them”, Lee points out, however.
After weeks of political commitments, strengthened also by the presidential denunciation of the phenomena that were the backdrop to the tragedy of the ferry Sewol that sank on 16 April, causing the deaths of 300 people, the Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, at the beginning of July, revealed to the public the extent of the phenomenon of corruption and malfeasance in the country. A clear confirmation that the rapid and, from many aspects, enthusiastic development of South Korea, has so far had as a counterpart approximate levels of security, social inequalities and inadequate welfare facilities for a country of its economic weight and prestige. (S.V.)