MORE than six months after a ferry sank with the death of 304 South Koreans, mostly pupils from one high school, the furore has barely subsided. But whereas anger had once united people, now frustration divides them. Victims’ families and their sympathisers still occupy makeshift tents on the main square of the capital, Seoul. But government supporters have set up nearby, challenging them to leave.
Last month prosecutors demanded the death penalty for the ferry’s captain. He was charged with murder for abandoning ship after telling passengers to stay in their cabins. Though that bitter sentence is unlikely to be handed down at the end of the trial, on November 11th, it indicates how the accident continues to weigh on the government of President Park Geun-hye (above). Ms Park herself has been hit by rumours that she was out of reach on the day of the accident (her office refutes this).
The disaster has also divided the National Assembly. For months the country’s main rival parties—the ruling Saenuri party and the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD)—have wrangled over the scope of a bill, called the Sewol bill, for an independent investigation into the cause of the sinking, and which creates a new disaster-response unit under the prime minister. Last week the two sides at last reached a deal. But the standoff held up hundreds of other bills: none was voted on from May to September.
Legislative gridlock has plagued Ms Park since she began her term in February 2013. Part of the problem is that three-fifths of MPs must consent to bills before voting—and the ruling party holds only a slim majority. That makes walkouts attractive for the NPAD. Since its election in 2012, the assembly has passed little more than a tenth of all bills. It has hampered the president’s ambitious three-year plan to revive the country’s unusually sluggish economy. In August the finance minister pleaded with MPs to pass bills swiftly.
The brouhaha has triggered fresh talk of constitutional reform that would transfer some of the administrative powers of the president to the cabinet and the prime minister—who would be voted in (and out) by parliament. The move has rare bipartisan backing (and had been mooted under previous governments). Kim Moo-sung, who became chairman of the Saenuri party in July, has suggested a debate on constitutional reform should restart. Ms Park, who once promised reform, is now squarely against it, calling it a “black hole”.
Such debate would be a distraction from Ms Park’s economic agenda. Constitutional revision is unlikely to happen in her term, but would still pit her against her party. The revived discussion suggests some MPs are already distancing themselves from a government that is losing popularity, says Choi Young-jin, a professor of politics at Chung-Ang University, in Seoul. He thinks Ms Park is a spent force with three years still left of her term.
The president continues to enjoy rock-solid backing from over-60s nostalgic for her late father and former president, Park Chung-hee. Support in her regional stronghold in the south-east is unwavering. Yet her approval ratings have slipped from highs of 61% in early April to 46% last month, according to Gallup Korea, a pollster (others put it as low as 38%). Ms Park’s travails over personnel do most to undermine her authority. It took her a month to form her first cabinet. She dismissed her prime minister over a botched response to the ferry accident, only to recall him after two failed attempts to replace him. In May she fired her spokesman for groping an intern. She has hired a celebrity fitness coach as her secretary.
It is prime fodder for a press that relishes scrutinising nominees. But the string of reshuffles suggests that loyalty trumps ability in Ms Park’s choices, says Tobin Im, a public-policy expert at Seoul National University. He says she is surrounded by yes-men who were also trusted allies of her father: her chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon (aged 74), helped to draft the martial law that kept Park in power. Ms Park has three four-star generals in her cabinet and four former public-security prosecutors in top posts. Mr Im doubts she hears “any good advice”.
But if she is in some trouble, the opposition is in worse. It has no clear unifying vision, preferring merely to rile the Saenuri party. After wearily reaching a compromise on the Sewol bill, the floor leader of the NPAD resigned last month. In July the party won only four of 15 contested seats in by-elections. Its approval rating has more than halved in six months. But as the two main parties fracture, Ms Park will find it tougher to push through reform. South Korean presidents tend to become lame ducks halfway through their terms. Ms Park will need to stretch her wings if the ferry disaster is not to become the event that defines hers.