Friday, December 23, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Park Geun-Hye's pre-impeachment speech

The first woman to be elected president of South Korea, Park Geun-Hye also is the first woman to preside over a Northeast Asian nation, and the first elected woman head of state in East Asia. The first words used to describe her were "tough" and "battle-ready," but just a couple of months after taking office, this New York Times article noted questions being raised about her gender and its impact on her ability to lead:
Her mother was shot by an assassin. Her father, a staunchly anti-Communist dictator, was similarly killed. And she survived a vicious razor attack to the face....However, now that South Korea’s prized economy appears to be rattled by months of crisis, critics and supporters alike wonder if Ms. Park may have gone too far in presenting herself as an ultratough leader and what some now call the “neuter president.” Just as some critics accused Hillary Rodham Clinton of becoming more hawkish to win over skeptics, Ms. Park took office seemingly ready to do battle.
That 2013 Times article also notes that "Last month, the North said her 'venomous swish of skirt' was to blame for the tensions besetting the peninsula, a reference to an old Korean expression for women who forget their place." And it quotes one source saying directly, "She is not a woman," noting that that view of the "neuter president" was common. It's also a hardened ancient practice of dismissing women when they take power. Women who defied the ban on women speaking in public in ancient Greece and Rome, for example, were considered unable to bear children, or androgynous. In other words, being a powerful woman and expressing that power publicly neuters you. So this modern slur has ancient roots, persistent in their own way.

Park's impeachment stems from corruption charges that also involve speeches. A longtime friend of hers was, it is charged, allowed to improperly review and influence the content of Park's speeches and otherwise used the connection to enrich herself. Is Park guilty? As with Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's now-impeached president, I don't know enough to say,  but I can observe that this was one of several notable and successful attacks on women leaders in 2016. Park's impeachment was accompanied by several huge and highly organized protests in the streets, as well as a drawn-out impeachment process that, in the end, saw her staying reclusive rather than reaching out publicly. And that backlash, too, was gendered, with both men and women rushing to decry her as a failed woman president.

Before her presidential powers were reduced by the impeachment, and she began avoiding the public limelight, Park gave this speech offering to step down as president if the parliament came up with a plan to transfer power. It was a last-ditch effort to avoid impeachment, and it failed. It begins and ends with apologies to the nation--a custom in Asian cultures that seems foreign to westerners--but also includes these words in her own defense:
Dear nation, as I look back, the journey for the past 18 years that I have been on with the nation has been such a precious time. From the time I first entered politics in 1998 to this moment today as president, I have been making every effort for the sake of the country.
Not for one moment did I pursue my private gains, and I have so far lived without ever harboring the smallest selfish motive. The problems that have emerged are from projects that I thought were serving the public interest and benefiting the country. But since I failed to properly manage those around me, (everything that happened) is my large wrongdoing.
The speech, one of the shortest in our collection, was one of three public apologies Park has made. It almost seems to be the type of statement you'd make privately--unless, perhaps, she saw this as her last opportunity to make a public statement. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Make public your side of the story: Letting others define you, especially during a controversial moment, only gives away your power. And as Alice Walker said, "The most common way that people give away their power is by thinking they don't have any." That goes for a now-powerless president, and you.
  • A long speech is the privilege of those not under attack: Short remarks work in situations like this one, not least because of the burdens already on the speaker, but also because a longer speech under these conditions starts to feel defensive, something this speech avoids.
  • Speak for yourself: "Not for one moment did I pursue my private gains, and I have so far lived without ever harboring the smallest selfish motive." In a nation where she is expected to apologize again and again for even lesser issues, this sentence throws down the gauntlet in its own quiet way, making clear that she does not agree with any charge that she herself committed a crime. While not as in-your-face as Dilma Rousseff's speech under similar conditions, that sentence is a reminder that Park was not about to agree to everything hurled at her.
You can read a transcript of the speech here and watch the video here or below.

(White House photo by Pete Souza)

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