MERS Tarnishes Korean President’s Image as Leader


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President Park Geun-hye with health care providers at a hospital treating MERS patients.

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Presidential House, via Yonhap, via Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — It used to be an often-cited story about Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea: When her father, the longtime dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979, her first reaction was to ask whether there was any unusual movement by the North Korean military along the border.

The episode helped build Ms. Park an image as a strong leader who could keep a clear head in a crisis, and it propelled her to victory in the 2012 election, in which she became South Korea’s first female president.

But that image has come crashing down as Ms. Park’s government has fumbled in its efforts to contain an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, just a year after she and her administration were criticized for their response to the ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mostly teenagers.

With her approval rating plunging, critics and political analysts alike are questioning her leadership as the country faces pressing issues like a slowing economy, a national pension system awaiting an overhaul, and nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.

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A worker sprayed an art hall in Seoul with antiseptic.

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Lee Jin-Man/Associated Press

“She is too slow, too closed, to be able to deliver a timely message to her people at a time like this,” said Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership in Seoul. “She has turned out to be the most shut-off and people-averse president we ever had. I have serious doubts about the rest of her term.”

Since the first case of the virus, known as MERS, was confirmed in South Korea on May 20, it has infected 137 other people, including 14 who have died. The outbreak is the worst reported outside Saudi Arabia, where the disease emerged in 2012. More than 3,600 South Koreans are being observed for symptoms, and over 2,900 schools are closed.

There are also fears that the outbreak will affect the economy. Once-bustling shopping districts in Seoul have emptied of the Chinese visitors who are the biggest source of foreign tourist income for South Korea.

Department stores and theaters say that customers are staying away. On Thursday, the Bank of Korea cut its interest rate to a record low amid fears that the economy could slump further.

While the outbreak has exposed failings in the country’s public health system, like overcrowded emergency rooms, Ms. Park’s leadership has also been called into question. Her approval rating, which hovered around 40 percent before the outbreak, has dropped to 33 percent, according to a survey released by Gallup Korea on Friday.

Reacting to domestic pressure, Ms. Park on Wednesday postponed a meeting with President Obama in Washington that had been set for next week.

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Video

South Korea Steps Up MERS Fight

Workers sprayed disinfectant in a South Korean market as new cases of Middle East respiratory syndrome continue to be identified.


By Reuters on Publish Date June 12, 2015.


“Her lame-duck phase is arriving sooner than expected,” said Kim Ji-yoon, a political analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, citing growing questions about her competence. “I don’t think the postponement of her U.S. trip does anything good, other than making her look inconsistent.”

Even the country’s powerful conservative news media, which tends to support Ms. Park, has begun attacking her amid the MERS outbreak.

Her critics say she failed to recognize a national crisis early on and to communicate with the people, acting only once popular opinion had turned against her. They note that she did not convene a meeting of cabinet ministers and civilian experts on MERS until two weeks after the outbreak began. As many as five overlapping task forces from different government agencies have sprung up to deal with MERS, which critics say shows the same lack of efficient leadership displayed during the ferry crisis.

As new MERS cases emerged, the government was quick to update the numbers with a few details of individual infections. But it initially kept other vital information to itself, refusing to publicize the names of hospitals with infected patients, the route of the disease’s spread, or details of what the government was doing to stop the chain of transmission.

This lack of information “can easily create anxiety and fear in the public,” said Peter Ben Embarek, a chief scientist on MERS at the World Health Organization.

South Korean officials have instead arrested at least eight people, including a few who circulated the names of hospitals said to have MERS patients, after the government condemned the spread of “unconfirmed rumors” on social media. The Health Ministry advised people to avoid contact with camels, which one critic, in a post that went viral on Twitter, said was tantamount in South Korea to asking people to avoid unicorns.

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A train rider wore a protective mask in Seoul.

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Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Ms. Park’s image as an aloof leader has been bolstered by her reluctance to face the news media. Last year, she only held one news conference. This year, too, she has held only one so far — in January. She has also been accused of being imperious with senior officials and of not tolerating dissent.

Official photos often show ministers and presidential staff members reverentially taking notes while she speaks, which some critics liken to North Korean generals’ trailing their young leader, Kim Jong-un, with note pads.

“Her leadership smacks somewhat of a monarchy,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee Cyber University in Seoul. “You get to wonder whether she knows what ‘being presidential’ means.”

Ms. Park’s office declined to answer questions or to comment for this article.

Her Saenuri Party remains more popular than the main opposition, which has been entangled in internal disputes. But Mr. Ahn said Ms. Park’s ability to push her domestic and international agenda could be seriously compromised because her “political capital would likely run thin” in the wake of the MERS crisis. The Saenuri Party may turn its back against the unpopular president before parliamentary elections next year, he said.

Some political analysts traced Ms. Park’s leadership style to her background. Her father ruled the country with an iron fist for 18 years, and Ms. Park served as first lady after her mother was assassinated in 1974.

After her father’s death, she secluded herself in her Seoul home for almost 18 years before she entered politics during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

She quickly emerged as a darling of conservative South Koreans who hankered for the charismatic leadership associated with her father. Ms. Park, who never married, said she was “married to the nation.”

Behind that image, however, was a leader whose “mind-set remains stuck in her father’s days, steeped in a hierarchical and closed leadership,” Mr. Choi, of the Institute of Presidential Leadership, said. “What we once praised as her greatest strengths have turned out her biggest weaknesses.”



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