SEOUL: South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s voice trembled as she tried to comfort parents gathered near a makeshift morgue to identify the bodies of their children, among the hundreds drowned in a ferry disaster.
“I know very well the sorrow of losing a family member because I’ve experienced it,” said Park, whose parents were both killed when she was in her 20s.
“My heart aches thinking about how you feel.”
It was a rare display of emotion from the usually stoic 62-year-old – too rare, critics say, given the anger and grief that erupted nationwide over the sinking of the Sewol ferry and what was widely seen as a botched rescue operation.
About 300 people, most of them school-children, were killed in the disaster last April.
Park is still struggling to reclaim the initiative in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
While she has more than three years left in office, South Korean presidents tend to become lame ducks mid-way through their single five-year term, adding urgency for her to lead the country beyond the tragedy.
Park’s detached and wary leadership style, which confidants and analysts say seems rooted in her own tragic past in which her father, a former president, and mother were assassinated, has been a handicap in healing a grieving and polarised nation.
“She showed a really good gesture at the very beginning, but afterwards it seemed that she was not there,” said Kim Ji-yoon, research fellow and head of the Center for Public Opinion and Quantitative Research at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“She could have been more compassionate.
That would help her, but maybe it’s not really her style,” she said.
Unfortunately for Park, the ferry disaster and the government’s response have become the defining events of her term that began in February 2013 after a decisive election win.
Her approval rating fell to as low as 40 percent in early July from 59 percent before the disaster, according to Gallup Korea.
It recovered somewhat to 44 percent in mid-September.