February 25, 2013

Challenges await first female leader of South Korea

Park Geun-hye faces a troubled economy and a difficult relationship with North Korea.

By FOSTER KLUG and HYUNG-JIN KIM/The Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea - Park Geun-hye became South Korea's first female president Monday, returning to the presidential mansion where she grew up with her dictator father.

Park Geun-hye
click image to enlarge

South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, waves to supporters on the way to her inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, Monday.

Shin Jun-hee/Yonhap News Agency via The Associated Press

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South Korean honor guards salute during a rehearsal of the presidential inauguration in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday.

The Associated Press

Park's last stint in the Blue House was bookended by tragedy: At 22, she cut short her studies in Paris to return to Seoul and act as President Park Chung-hee's first lady after an assassin targeting her father instead killed her mother; she left five years later after her father was shot and killed by his spy chief during a drinking party.

As president, Park will face stark divisions both in South Korean society and with rival North Korea, which detonated an underground nuclear device about two weeks ago. South Koreans worry about a growing gap between rich and poor, and there's pressure for her to live up to her campaign suggestion that she can return the country to the strong economic growth her strongman father oversaw.

North Korea's atomic test will also present a challenge to her vow to soften Seoul's current hard-line approach to its northern rival.

Pyongyang, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo are all watching to see if Park pursues an ambitious engagement policy meant to ease five years of animosity on the divided peninsula or if she sticks with the tough stance of her fellow conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.

Park's decision is important because it will likely set the tone of the larger diplomatic approach that Washington and others take in stalled efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Park technically took over as the clock struck midnight. Her swearing-in ceremony later Monday was to be attended by tens of thousands, including dignitaries such as U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso. South Korean superstar PSY, who rose to surprising global fame last year with his song "Gangnam Style," was set to perform.

Park's first weeks in office will be complicated by North Korea's warning of unspecified "second and third measures of greater intensity," a threat that comes as Washington and others push for tightened U.N. sanctions as punishment for the Feb. 12 atomic test, the North's third since 2006.

That test is seen as another step toward North Korea's goal of building a bomb small enough to be mounted on a missile that can hit the United States. The explosion, which Pyongyang called a response to U.S. hostility, triggered global outrage.

Park has said she won't yet change her policy, which was built with the high probability of provocations from Pyongyang in mind. But some aren't sure if engagement can work, given North Korea's choice of "bombs over electricity," as American scientist Siegfried Hecker puts it.

"Normalization of relations, a peace treaty, access to energy and economic opportunities -- those things that come from choosing electricity over bombs and have the potential of lifting the North Korean people out of poverty and hardship -- will be made much more difficult, if not impossible, for at least the next five years," Hecker, a regular visitor to North Korea, said in a posting on the website of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

As she takes office, however, Park will be mindful that many South Koreans are frustrated at the state of inter-Korean relations after the Lee government's five-year rule, which saw two nuclear tests, three long-range rocket launches and attacks blamed on North Korea that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.

Park's policy calls not only for strong defense but also for efforts to build trust through aid shipments, reconciliation talks and the resumption of some large-scale economic initiatives as progress occurs on the nuclear issue. Park has also held out the possibility of a summit with new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

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