Park Geun-hye Takes the Reins
Image Credit: House Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans

Park Geun-hye Takes the Reins


The challenges that will face newly elected South Korean president Park Geun-hye when she takes office are daunting. She is the first woman to lead what has been one of the world’s most male-dominated governments. She must contend with the controversial legacy of her father, Park Chung Hee, a long-ruling dictator revered as the driving force behind South Korea’s economic miracle but reviled for brutally suppressing the opposition. And she must keep the nation safe and prosperous in an era of escalating regional tensions and financial turmoil. Should she fail at any of these tasks, she will have to contend with a notoriously unforgiving political culture. None of her four democratically elected predecessors left office with a high approval rating.

While the new president’s mettle will unquestionably be tested, there are reasons to believe that she can rise to the challenge. Great leaders confront difficulties with equanimity and make the bold moves necessary to break through obstacles to change.  Park has already demonstrated these abilities in the arena of domestic politics. After first being elected to the National Assembly in 1998, she repeatedly trounced her opponents at the ballot box and eventually rose to a position of leadership in the ruling Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party). During election years when her party was mired in scandal and the opposition seemed poised to make significant gains, Park engineered surprising victories at the polls that enabled the conservatives to retain power. These impressive performances led the South Korean media to call her “The Queen of Elections.”

Throughout Park’s rise to the top she has gracefully weathered personal attacks, maintaining an almost unflappable demeanor. The success of Park’s presidency will hinge on whether she can transfer her consummate skills as a politician to the realm of policymaking.

In the international arena, Park’s most pressing challenge will be the ever-intractable regime in Pyongyang. The country’s enigmatic leader Kim Jong-un has made clear his determination to remain a thorn in the side of both Seoul and Washington. If the ROK does not act quickly, Pyongyang’s saber rattling will threaten not only the stability of the Korean peninsula, but also all of Northeast Asia.

As president, Park plans to tackle the North Korea problem by pursuing what she has called “trustpolitik,” meaning the establishment of “mutually binding expectations based on global norms.” Since the end of the Cold War the pendulum of South Korean policy toward its northern rival has swung back and forth between engagement and containment with neither approach producing meaningful change. Park has sensibly called for a more strategic mixing of sticks and carrots that will encourage good behavior and deter aggression.     

Is there any reason to believe that Park can succeed where her predecessors have failed so ignominiously? Perhaps. Conservative political leaders who seek rapprochement with rival governments while maintaining a credible deterrent are sometimes more successful at achieving meaningful reconciliation than their progressive opponents. After all, it took Richard Nixon, who rose to national prominence as an anti-Communist Congressman, to go to China in 1972.

Kim's Uncle
March 1, 2013 at 06:51

A strong unified Korea under Seoul would be Chinese commies worse nightmare. No wonder they want to keep North Korea stunted and backwards. China has always been the main troublemaker in Asia. The dirty commie dictatorship in Beijing was the only power to armed the homicidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge! Chinese commies unmasked themselves as people with no scruples whatsoever!

[...] Read the full article here [...]

TV Monitor
February 26, 2013 at 01:24

Israel is urging the US to strike at North Korean nuclear facilities now in order to prevent NK nuclear technology from flowing into Iran.

The election of hardliners in ROK has made that process a lot easier.

February 25, 2013 at 14:12

"It’s time to unchain North Korea servitude towards China."

China can't even stop North Korea's nuclear tests. What servitude are you talking about? You should be talking about South Korea, Japan and U.S.

[...] optimistic, Park must do a lot to make this rhetoric a reality. Actually I don’t know what “spiritual ethos” is or how it [...]

Kim's Uncle
February 25, 2013 at 06:21

It’s time to unchain North Korea servitude towards China. If North Korea is freed and reunified with the dynamic south Beijing will be sweating bullets!

February 24, 2013 at 22:48

As long as North Korea exists, South Korea cannot afford to become liberal or left leaning. Look at what happened within South Vietnam before the war and the scandals of Taiwanese generals retiring in the PRC.

When Germany reunited there were over 40,000 East German spies operating in the West. There are many seeds of social upheaval within South Korea sowed by North Korean spies as well as collaborators.

Already in South Korea they have allowed North Juche praising politicians into the senate, they who refuse to sing the South Korean anthem and refuse to denounce anything related to North Korea.

A recent scandal in SK was when one of these famous North loving politicans who once visited the North in her youth to denounce the South and hug Kim Il Sung got in a drunken tirade against a North Korean refugee turned activist. She denounced him as a traitor to the cause. Who's cause?

If for example China had been split evenly with Southern China ie Guangdong having become a democratic capitalist state in contrast to the communist, they would also be having a similar situation as with the Koreans.

Conveniently Oversight Re The US Elephant In The Room
February 24, 2013 at 16:23

"On the other, Japan and South Korea are both important allies of the United States that share a common set of democratic values. They are also both wary of China’s ambitions to assert itself as a regional power"

Really?  What do you think is the US doing exactly this moment?  It is not only piling pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to "kow-tow" to Washington wishes, or it will ensure  that ruling S Korean and Japanese politicians will be deposed and never re-elected again.  That is how assertive Imperial Washington is.  And all you propagandists can only focus on Beijing, conveniently forgetting the elephant in the room which is imperial Washington.

February 24, 2013 at 15:25

If what you say is true, no wonder North Korea tested the bomb. Abe of Japan is also playing the hardline card. U.S is pivoting to asia pacific, they will fish in the troubled waters there to look for cards to use against China. 

There will be more trouble ahead. Hope that Israel will instigate some wars to distract the U.S and force them to re-pivot back to the middle east and away from China.

TV Monitor
February 24, 2013 at 12:48

The author doesn't seem to understand that Park is the most authoritarian politician in 25 years, since the last dictator president in 1988. When the conservative politicians meet the outgoing president Lee Myung Bak, they bow 10 degree and then shake hands. When the same politicians meet Park, the bow down 90 degree. People are wondering why this is, but the leading theory is that these politicians are seeing the ghost of her dictator father in her.

Not only that, the people who are being recruited in her administration are retired army generals who call for a hardline policy toward China and North Korea. The very fact that her secret service chief is an army general instead of a traditional high-ranking police officer is the proof of this, since the last time an army general held that post was during the military dictator era .Military dictator presidents only thrusted his subordinates on the roles of secret service and national intelligence service and this is why army generals held those posts.

What you are looking at is another 5 years of hardline policies in diplomacy and national defense by ex-generals surrounding Park, and Park herself was known for being uncompromising.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief