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.