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South Korea's president-elect promises 'new era of change'

Park Geun-hye's calls for inter-Korean dialogue are mixed with a firm stance against compromise.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / December 20, 2012

South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-hye (c.) shouts her name with members of her election camp during a ceremony to disband the camp at her party's headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, Dec. 20. Park's election as South Korea's first female president could mean a new drive to start talks with bitter rival North Korea, though it's unclear how much further she will go than the hard-line incumbent, a member of her own conservative party.

Jung Yeon-je/AP

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Seoul, South Korea

South Korea’s President-elect Park Geun-hye signaled today the tough policy toward North Korea that she’s likely to pursue when she embarks on her five-year term as president in February.

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She began the day after winning the presidential election by visiting the national cemetery, bowing before the grave of her father, Park Chung-hee, the long-ruling dictator who was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

“I will open up a new era of change and reform,” she scrawled in the visitor’s book, but soon she left no doubt she would mingle calls for inter-Korean dialogue with a firm stance against compromise.

North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket last week “showed how grave the security reality really is,” she said at her party headquarters after the visit to the cemetery. Yes, she says she wants to open talks with North Korea – but she also vowed to keep her “promise of a new era of strong national security.” Similarly, while calling for peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia, she placed priority on dealing with the “security reality.”

Though Ms. Park is not as hardline as outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, in the view of analysts, she is still not going to revert to the Sunshine policy of reconciliation espoused by two Korean presidents before Mr. Lee’s election five years ago. 

“At the very least, South Korea will not funnel funds to support weapons programs with which North Korea will threaten the country that defends South Korea,” says Lee Sung-yoon, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Boston, Mass.

That’s a reference to the hundreds of thousands of tons of food and fertilizer that South Korea shipped annually to North Korea during the era of the Sunshine policy. Moon Jae-in, Park’s liberal foe in Wednesday’s election, had promised to resume the shipments. 

“She is under no illusions about Pyongyang,” says Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. If she “can expound and implement a coherent policy for reducing the North Korean threat” while advancing the cause of Korean unification, “that would be a great service to her countrymen and to the world.”

David Straub, former senior US diplomat in Seoul and now at Stanford, says Park "wants to give food aid to North Koreans and make another effort to engage North Korea."  If that doesn't work, he predicts, "She will deal with North Korea in a firm and principled way."

Firmness under North Korean threats is seen as essential. “In principle she will be tough on North Korea,” says Cho Gab-je, a conservative editor who often comments on policy issues. “She will have some flexibility on policy,” he says,” but she will not follow the line of the Sunshine policy.”

The North Korea challenge

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