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.

Jung Yeon-je/AP
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.

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.

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

At the same time, North Korea is expected to challenge her, militarily and rhetorically. “They usually try to test a new president,” says Choi Jin-wook, a senior official at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “They might make provocations before or after her inauguration.”

Many observers, including Mr. Choi, believe that North Korea fired its long-range missile last week as a deliberate attempt to intimidate voters into supporting Moon Jae-in as a candiate less likely to provoke a war. “People when they vote always think about North Korea,” he says.

But, instead of hurting Park, says Mr. Choi, North Korea accomplished “just the opposite, they helped Park.” The logic here is that voters, particularly the conservative older generation, cast their ballots for her as the most likely candidate to defend South Korea in a crisis. 

Then too, Park is assumed to have quite a sophisticated understanding of North Korea. She is one of the few top-ranked conservative politicians who has been to Pyongyang.

“She is the first South Korean president who has already been to North Korea and met with Kim Jong-il ,” observes Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor who directed Asia affairs at the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush. “She will have a more rational view on inter-Korean relations.”

In that spirit, says Mr. Cha, she will not be “blindly obsessed with a summit” as were the two liberal presidents from 1998 to 2008. Both President Kim Dae-jung and President Roh Moo-hyun went to Pyongyang for summits with Kim Jong-il that produced promising statements but did not end confrontation. 

Other major issues for South Korea

While problems with North Korea dominate concerns here, however, Park has more to worry about when it comes to the stagnating economy, the rising gap between rich and poor Koreans, and the anger of young people unable to find jobs.

Park also faces a regional problem – the hostility of the Cholla region of southwestern Korea. Moon Jae-in won 90 percent of the votes there.

“She has talked about unifying the country so it would not surprise me if she pulled Cholla people into her cabinet – a sort of team of rivals,” says Cha.

Indeed, many analysts say that Park’s first priority will not be North Korea but reforming an economy in which the conglomerates increased their grip over Korean life substantially under President Lee.

“In terms of economic growth his policies have failed,” says Jang Ha-sung, a business professor at Korea University who has often criticized the conglomerates, known as chaebol. “He represented the so-called trickle down effect. He depended on the old model that was heavily dependent on the chaebol.”

The historical irony is that Korea’s conglomerates owe their success in large measure to the policies of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, often credited with fostering Korea’s booming growth during his 18 years and 5 months as president.

Park, however, has promised “economic democratization” – with more opportunity for individual entrepreneurs and enterprises. 

“Public opinion calls for some reform of the chaebol,” says Cho Gap-je. ”In a crisis, he observes, “creating jobs is the first priority.”

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