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

(Continued from page 1)

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

Much is riding on Park's conclusion.

"The overall policy direction on North Korea among the U.S., Japan and South Korea will be hers to decide," said Victor Cha, a former senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. "If Park Geun-hye wants to contain, the U.S. will support that. But if Park Geun-hye, months down the road, wants to engage, then the U.S. will go along with that too. "

Her father was a staunch anti-communist who made no secret of his antipathy toward Pyongyang during his 18-year rule in the 1960s and '70s. In 1968, 31 North Korean commandos staged a failed raid on the Blue House that ended with nearly all of them dead. In 1974, Park's wife was shot and killed by a Japan-born Korean claiming he was acting on assassination orders by North Korea founder and then leader Kim Il Sung.

Critics say Park Geun-hye's North Korea policy lacks specifics. They also question how far she can go given her conservative base's strong anti-Pyongyang sentiments.

But Park has previously confounded ideological expectations. She travelled to Pyongyang in 2002 and held private talks with the late Kim Jong Il, the father of Kim Jong Un, and her gifts to Kim Jong Il are showcased in a museum of gifts to the North Korean leaders. During the often-contentious presidential campaign, she responded to liberal criticism by reaching out to the families of victims of her father's dictatorship.

She said in her 2007 autobiography that she visited Pyongyang because she thought her painful experiences with the North made her "the one who could resolve South-North relations better than anyone else." She also wrote that Kim Jong Il apologized for the 1968 attack.

"I don't think this latest spike in the cycle of provocation and response undermines her whole platform of seeking to somehow re-engage the North," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. North Korea wants a return of large-scale aid and investment from South Korea.

Before the election, Pyongyang's state media repeatedly questioned the sincerity of Park's engagement overture. Since the election, however, although regular criticism of Lee continues -- one report said he was the "rubbish of history" -- the North's official Korean Central News Agency hasn't mentioned Park by name, though her political party is still condemned.

Pyongyang sees the nuclear crisis as a U.S.-North Korea issue, Delury said. "From a North Korean mindset, ramping up the tension and hostility with the U.S. does not equal jettisoning relations with the South."

Park may take a wait-and-see stance in coming months.

Analyst Hong Hyun-ik at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea predicts that the United States will seek nuclear talks with North Korea in a few months, something that could help Park's efforts to engage North Korea.

"The nuclear test sets back and complicates but does not necessarily doom her engagement efforts over the long term," said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank.

Park warned after the test that North Korea faces international isolation, economic difficulties and, eventually, a collapse if it continues to build its atomic program. But she also pressed Pyongyang to respond to her overtures.

"We can't achieve trust with only one side's efforts," she said.

 

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