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.
Seoul, South Korea
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.
â€śI will open up a new era of change and reform,â€ť she scrawled in the visitorâ€™s book, but soon she left no doubt she would mingle calls for inter-Korean dialogue with a firm stance against compromise.
North Koreaâ€™s launch of a long-range rocket last week â€śshowed how grave the security reality really is,â€ť she said at her party headquarters after the visit to the cemetery. Yes, she says she wants to open talks with North Korea â€“ but she also vowed to keep her â€śpromise of a new era of strong national security.â€ť Similarly, while calling for peace and reconciliation in Northeast Asia, she placed priority on dealing with the â€śsecurity reality.â€ť
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. Leeâ€™s election five years ago.Â
â€śAt 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,â€ť says Lee Sung-yoon, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Boston, Mass.
Thatâ€™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.Â Moon Jae-in, Parkâ€™s liberal foe in Wednesdayâ€™s election, had promised to resume the shipments.Â
â€śShe is under no illusions about Pyongyang,â€ť says Nicholas Eberstadt at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. If she â€ścan expound and implement a coherent policy for reducing the North Korean threatâ€ť while advancing the cause of Korean unification, â€śthat would be a great service to her countrymen and to the world.â€ť
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." Â 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.Â â€śIn principle she will be tough on North Korea,â€ť says Cho Gab-je, a conservative editor who often comments on policy issues. â€śShe will have some flexibility on policy,â€ť he says,â€ť but she will not follow the line of the Sunshine policy.â€ť
The North Korea challenge
At the same time, North Korea is expected to challenge her, militarily and rhetorically. â€śThey usually try to test a new president,â€ť says Choi Jin-wook, a senior official at the Korea Institute of National Unification. â€śThey might make provocations before or after her inauguration.â€ť
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. â€śPeople when they vote always think about North Korea,â€ť he says.
But, instead of hurting Park, says Mr. Choi, North Korea accomplished â€śjust the opposite, they helped Park.â€ť 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.Â
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.
â€śShe is the first South Korean president who has already been to North Korea and met with Kim Jong-il ,â€ť observes Victor Cha, a Georgetown University professor who directed Asia affairs at the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush. â€śShe will have a more rational view on inter-Korean relations.â€ť
In that spirit, says Mr. Cha, she will not be â€śblindly obsessed with a summitâ€ť 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.Â
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 â€“ the hostility of the Cholla region of southwestern Korea. Moon Jae-in won 90 percent of the votes there.
â€śShe has talked about unifying the country so it would not surprise me if she pulled Cholla people into her cabinet â€“ a sort of team of rivals,â€ť says Cha.
Indeed, many analysts say that Parkâ€™s first priority will not be North Korea but reforming an economy in which the conglomeratesÂ increased their grip over Korean life substantially under President Lee.
â€śIn terms of economic growth his policies have failed,â€ť says Jang Ha-sung, a business professor at Korea University who has often criticized the conglomerates, known asÂ chaebol. â€śHe represented the so-called trickle down effect. He depended on the old model that was heavily dependent on theÂ chaebol.â€ť
The historical irony is that Koreaâ€™s conglomerates owe their success in large measure to the policies of Parkâ€™s father, Park Chung-hee, often credited with fostering Koreaâ€™s booming growth during his 18 years and 5 months as president.
Park, however, has promised â€śeconomic democratizationâ€ť â€“ with more opportunity for individual entrepreneurs and enterprises.Â
â€śPublic opinion calls for some reform of theÂ chaebol,â€ť says Cho Gap-je. â€ťIn a crisis, he observes, â€ścreating jobs is the first priority.â€ť