Obama had a terrific relationship with Park’s predecessor, President Lee Myung-bak. The two men saw eye to eye on North Korea as well as on most other issues, and South Korea came to be seen by many Americans as an even better East Asian partner than Japan. Obama instantly hit it off with the exuberant Lee, making it possible for them to coordinate closely during several crises, including North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests and its two sneak attacks on the South in 2010 that killed 50 people.
Park represents the same conservative party as Lee but comes from a different faction and has brought in many new advisers. She has offered North Korea negotiations on confidence-building measures and said she would provide food aid, but, unlike Lee, without conditioning these on North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons program.
So far, the North has spurned her initiatives, most recently moving to shut down the joint Kaesong industrial park that is the last remaining symbol of North-South cooperation. But Park has remained calm in the face of provocation, ready to revive cooperation if North Korea will give her the opportunity.
Park is also a different personality than Lee. Northeast Asia’s first female leader in modern times, she is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, Korea’s strongman during the 1960s and 1970s who oversaw the country’s dramatic economic development.
Her mother was assassinated by a North Korean agent in 1974, after which she acted as the nation’s first lady, only to have her father killed by his own intelligence chief amid popular demands for democratization in 1979. These experiences have made Park Geun-hye a reserved and formal person, but many feel she is also as firm and determined as her father.