Wearing a ritzy yellow jacket, the president appeared excited about her nine-day trip onboard Air Force One last Sunday, telling reporters that she would generate a “second Middle East boom” for South Korean companies making inroads into the oil-rich nations, and that was why she was “diligently” traveling around.
Park’s spontaneous speech appeared to show the trip meant a lot to her.
Indeed, the four-nation tour, her first overseas trip this year, was widely viewed as an opportunity for the president to reclaim the people’s attention.
A series of political scandals as well as the government’s inconsistent policies on tax and health insurance have damaged her credibility. Her lack of communication with the public only boosted her authoritarian image. Last month, her approval ratings plummeted to below 30 per cent, the lowest rating since she assumed office in early 2013.
To restore public confidence, Park spent the first two months of this year conducting a partial Cabinet reshuffle and reorganising the presidential office.
And just two days before she left for the Middle East, Park replaced her chief secretary ? the last piece of puzzle to complete her new lineup. She was definitely ready for a fresh start.
Then something unexpected happened during her overseas trip, again.
Mark Lippert, the youngest-ever US ambassador to Korea, was attacked by an ultraleft South Korean activist.
Pictures of Lippert’s face covered with blood dominated news coverage both in Korea and the US just when she was ready to show off her illustrious sales diplomacy that helped Korean firms inch closer to the nuclear plant project, worth $2 billion, in Saudi Arabia.
Korean officials in Abu Dhabi responded fast, delivering Park’s reaction to the knife attack. But it was obvious that they had been taken aback by the news, knowing that Park’s sales diplomacy would lose steam.
This is not the first time that one of her overseas trips has been overshadowed by unforeseen accidents.
On her first trip to the United States in May 2013, then-presidential spokesman Yoon Chang-jung sexually assaulted a Korean-American hired to help the Seoul delegation in Washington.
When Park was visiting China in June the same year, minutes recorded during the 2007 inter-Korean summit were disclosed, putting the country in a deep ideological turmoil. A rebellion conspiracy involving a progressive lawmaker as well as a scandal involving an ex-top prosecutor’s son born out of wedlock stirred controversy during her trip to Russia and Vietnam in September 2013.
She was also pressed to apologise over backtracking on a welfare pledge during the APEC summit held in Indonesia and to withdraw her nomination of prime minister-designate Moon Chang-keuk over his pro-Japanese past remarks during her trip to Central Asia last year.
In October, the ruling Saenuri chief Rep. Kim Moo-sung, who has been regarded as Park’s bittersweet rival, generated controversy when he proposed a constitutional amendment during her trip to Italy.
Despite her efforts to start afresh, the jinx on her overseas trips continued with the knife attack on the US envoy this time.
According to local pollster Gallup Korea, her approval rating rose 4 percentage points, much lower than expected, from last week to 37 per cent, probably due to the Middle East trip. Respondents answered positively on her work and diplomacy skills, which have produced notable economic achievements.
For South Korean presidents, a trip to the Middle East has often provided a dramatic turnaround during their terms.
The late former President Roh Moo-hyun made a surprise visit to the Korean troops in Iraq in 2004 when there was political division over Korea’s extension of its troop deployment there. Meanwhile, Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak signed a landmark $20 billion nuclear plant deal with the United Arab Emirates in 2009, which opened the door for Korean firms to make inroads into global markets with domestically developed technology.
It is too bad that no amount of planning could have prepared Park for yet another unfavourable event.