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.
The best chance for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and keeping it there probably lies in a similar combination of deterrence and engagement. Changing the mindset of North Korea’s leaders is far beyond the capabilities of any South Korean president. But there is always the possibility that Pyongyang — like Beijing and Hanoi — will one day acknowledge that greater engagement with the rest of the world serves its interests more than isolationism and militarism. If and when it does so, a consistent and pragmatic approach like the one that Park advocates will have the best chance of encouraging the DPRK’s peaceful evolution while minimizing backtracking.
Rising tensions between China and Japan represent another potential danger for Park Geun-hye’s government. Koreans have long used an old adage to describe the impact of conflicts among their larger neighbors on the peninsula: When whales fight the shrimp gets crushed. Seoul has good reason to fear that this proverb will again prove relevant should Beijing and Tokyo come to blows over the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. The last time China and Japan forces clashed in the East China Sea was during the Sino-Japanese War of 1895 — a conflict in which Korea suffered even though it was not a combatant. During the war, Japan formally wrested Korea from China’s control but not before military engagements left Pyongyang and other Korean cities significantly damaged.
For President Park, relations with China and Japan present a nettlesome quandary that will require her to strike a careful balance in her foreign policy. Popular sentiment will undoubtedly complicate the issue. On the one hand, Koreans have their own territorial dispute with Japan over Dokdo-Takeshima and, like the Chinese, have bitter memories of Japanese expansionism during World War II. 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.
And yet President Park is not without leverage when it comes to handling this delicate situation. South Korea may not be the most powerful or wealthiest nation in the Pacific but it is among the most trusted. It has no history of territorial aggrandizement or hegemonic ambitions and is admired for its vibrant economy and dynamic popular culture. As a result, Seoul punches above its weight in international organizations. The key will be converting these assets into tangible achievements in trilateral relations.
To start with, Park needs to adopt a different strategy than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak. Lee squandered much of South Korea’s political capital in the region by needlessly escalating frictions with Japan over disputed fishing islands and doing little to stop relations with China from deteriorating due to disagreements over North Korea policy. Park points to slowing military arms buildups and strengthening multilateral regimes including trilateral summits as possible methods for reversing the decline in Seoul’s relations with its neighbors.
She will have a small window of opportunity to push for this agenda because the new Chinese and Japanese heads of state, Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, have both sought a fresh start in their relations with the ROK. Even the wisest diplomacy is unlikely to break the impasses that exist between China, Japan and South Korea on some issues. Nevertheless, by seizing the opportunity to promote confidence building and cooperative security measures, Park can at least contribute to their resolution rather than allowing them to become a casus belli.
An equally daunting array of challenges awaits the new president in the domestic arena. Fundamental social or economic change is not likely to be in the cards for South Korea during the next five years. But citizens made clear their desire to see significant reforms during the campaign when the term “economic democratization” was bandied about by candidates and the media. Koreans want their country’s economic growth to continue but they also want to see the gap between the rich and the poor narrowed and the power of the chaebol — large, family-controlled multinational conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai that dominate the economy— curtailed so that small businesses have a chance to thrive.
Dealing with the chaebol presents a particularly thorny problem. Progressive economic reformers may resent their dominance but the South Korean economy remains dependent on their success. The largest conglomerates account for more than half of South Korea’s GNP. At the same time, Park has greater credibility with the chaebol’s owners than almost any other South Korean politician. It was, after all, her father, Park Chung Hee, who nurtured the chaebol with preferential loans during the 1960s and 1970s, helping to build them up from very modest enterprises to the multinational corporations that are known throughout the world today. Their owners could almost be heard breathing a collective sigh of relief when Madame Park captured the presidency in December; she had, from the outset, proposed far more modest reforms to their structure than her opponent.
Ultimately, Park is unlikely to force the chaebol through any significant restructuring but she does have enough authority and goodwill in the corporate sector to curb their abuses and level the playing field for smaller businesses. Even if this does not amount to the giant leap forward that progressive economic reformers would like to see, it could still be an important stride that starts the reform process without jeopardizing growth.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is how Park will handle the issue of gender inequality. Despite becoming the first country in Northeast Asia to elect a female head of state, South Korea is notorious for its inegalitarian work culture. Women are routinely pressured to quit their jobs when they have children and female talent is under-rewarded in large Korean companies. Park promoted herself as “a prepared woman president” during the campaign but she cannot claim a strong track record on gender issues during her tenure in the National Assembly. Many have expressed skepticism that she will do very much to empower women.
But the chances that Park will make at least some progress on the issue are probably greater than her critics believe. Her victory is, at a minimum, a symbolic breakthrough in a country where women face obvious discrimination. Even if Park’s political lineage sheltered her from many of the hardships routinely encountered by most women seeking to advance their careers, it did not protect her from being asked unusual or irrelevant questions because of her gender during the campaign. Unmarried at age 60 in a country where most women wed during their twenties, she was once asked if she had ever been in love.
Regardless of her unremarkable record on gender equality, Park may yet prove more attuned to the issue than her predecessors. She cannot change all of the subtle discriminatory practices that prevail in South Korean companies overnight, but progress can be made if Park fulfills her campaign pledge to create incentives for firms to hire women.
Enhancing the wealth and security of South Korea’s 50 million citizens during the next five years will be no easy task. The new president will need to act swiftly and decisively on a broad spectrum of issues, combining skilled diplomacy and solid economic management with a genuine concern for social welfare. Only if Park can manage this with the same competence and flair that has marked her career as a politician will she be able to completely step out of her father’s shadow and prove that she is the right person for the job.
Gregg Brazinsky is an Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.