She’s been called principled, tough-minded, competent, and a dictator’s daughter. Park Guen-hye, a career politician and child of South Korea’s deceased military ruler Park Chung-hee, is a conservative known for her steadfast leadership. And when South Korea inaugurates its first-ever female president in a ceremony on Monday, Park’s reputation could hinge on her ability to handle her troublesome neighbor to the north.
PHOTO: South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun-hye (C), from the ruling New Frontier Party, shouts her name with members of her election camp during a ceremony to disband the camp at the party headquarters in Seoul, December 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jung Yeon-Je/Pool
North Korea exasperated world powers this month with its third nuclear test. Yet media reports and Park’s campaign pledges suggest her administration will seek a softer approach toward Pyongyang than that of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Although her campaign offered few specifics, her criticism of Lee’s foreign policy indicates she could walk a middle line between his administration’s hardline approach and the peaceful “Sunshine Policy” of engagement and economic assistance her opponent and human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in hoped to reintroduce.
James Schoff, a senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former senior adviser for East Asia policy at the Department of Defense, expects the president-elect to adopt something of a “Goldilocks strategy” toward North Korea. ”Not too hard and not too soft.”
“The outgoing government took a hardline vis-à-vis North Korea,” Schoff said. “They were not in any mood to be conciliatory.” According to Schoff, Park’s approach is likely to include “much more flexibility in terms of looking for opportunities to develop a new relationship with the North.”
The Lee Administration put a lid on conciliation with North Korea, blocking trade and cutting humanitarian aid. Yet this policy frayed relations on the Korean Peninsula and failed to deter North Korea from carrying out nuclear tests. Critics argue such intransigence provided an excuse for North Korea to justify its aggression.
During her campaign, Park criticized Lee’s failed policies and promised to improve relations with North Korea, creating a “trust-based” relationship. South Korean daily newspaper The Hankyoreh writes that Park “tried to contrast her own platform with Lee’s failed policies without signing on for the engagement approach favored by Roh, and by Kim Dae-jung before him.”
According to the New York Times, Park has said she would “decouple humanitarian aid from politics” and even attempt to meet with Kim Jong-un, with the caveat that “any large-scale investments be conditional on progress in ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.”
North Korea’s young leader won’t exactly be breaking out the Jello molds. The hermit kingdom’s Feb. 12 nuclear test put western powers on edge and dispelled hopes that Kim Jong-un might be a more tempered leader than his father. And on Tuesday, North Korea angered participants at a U.N. conference with disturbing remarks about South Korea’s “final destruction,” one of daily warnings aimed at the South. Although it has been sixty years since the Korean War ended in a truce, South Korea is still technically at war with the North.
For Park, it’s personal. At age 22, she witnessed her mother’s assassination by a man who was aiming for her father and “acting under orders from North Korea,” Geoffrey Cain writes for Foreign Policy.
“National partition is a sorrow that touches all Koreans,” Park said before her election, according to the Washington Post, “but for me it is brought to the fore by unimaginable personal suffering.”
The New York Times illustrates her reputation for toughness with her reaction to the news of her father’s death, to which she reportedly responded, “Is everything all right along the border with North Korea?”
While serving as a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, Park wrote in a 2011 essay for Foreign Affairs magazine of her goal to adopt a policy of “trustpolitik,” or “mutually binding expectations,” on the Korean Peninsula. Park noted the failures of previous administrations’ efforts engage and deter North Korea. “The ones that have emphasized accommodation and inter-Korean solidarity have placed inordinate hope in the idea that if the South provided sustained assistance to the North, the North would abandon its bellicose strategy toward the South. But after years of such attempts, no fundamental change has come.” Governments that have pressured North Korea, however, “have not been able to influence its behavior in a meaningful way, either.”
Instead, Park advocated an “alignment policy” that would include a “tough line” some of the time and a “flexible policy open to negotiations” at others.
These measures, Time notes, include “renewal of humanitarian aid to the North and re-establishing social and cultural exchanges.”
Park’s history suggests that we can expect to see something between the current regime’s hardline approach and his predecessor’s open policy.