South Korea Elects First Female President — Who Is She?
South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye speaks at the New Frontier Party headquarters in Seoul. Photo by Jean Chung/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
In the last several years, a lagging global economy has forced out ruling parties in several countries: France, Italy and Japan, just to name a few. Not so in South Korea.
There, in Wednesday’s presidential election, the New Frontier Party of incumbent President Lee Myung-bak clung to power by a slim margin. Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a controversial former president, barely prevailed over Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the main opposition party and the son of North Korean refugees.
With 96 percent of the votes tallied, Park had received 51.6 percent of the vote to Moon’s 47.9 percent, according to National Election Commission figures cited in the New York Times.
Park, who will be South Korea’s first female president, was aided by a national economy that grew faster than those of most other industrialized nations. But a significant part of the electorate also had become wary of economic inequality within the country.
“The economic situation in Korea is not that grave,” said Sung-Yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Tufts University. “Yet there is the perception that income inequality, in terms of distribution, the gap between the rich and poor, has increased dramatically. That people are out of work, that young people out of college are unable to find work, employment and so forth.”
Once she becomes president, Park also will face a number of foreign policy issues, foremost of which is the worry that North Korea is still developing its nuclear weapons program.
We talked separately to Lee and David Straub, the associate director of Korean studies at Stanford University, about the soon-to-be South Korean president (answers edited for clarity and length):
Tell us about Park, her background and campaign platform.
STRAUB: The most salient thing about Park Geun-hye is that she is the daughter of the former president of Korea during the 1960s and ’70s, Park Chung-hee. He was a general who staged a coup in 1961 and ran the country until his assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979.
He is still a very controversial figure in South Korea. Many South Koreans credit him for the so-called Korean economic miracle, which put Korea on a sustainable path of development, making it one of the world’s wealthier countries today. On the other hand, he ruled very harshly, and so many people have mixed feelings about him, and lots of people either like him very much or dislike him very much.
And it’s because of him that his daughter came to prominence. She both benefited and was hurt by that legacy.
As far as her policies are concerned, she represents the conservative party, and in South Korea, that means less emphasis on social welfare, and more emphasis on business than on the part of the opposition, the so-called progressives, and a firmer approach to North Korea — a belief that large-scale aid to North Korea should be conditioned on whether North Korea begins to move to give up its nuclear weapons program.
LEE: Park Geun-hye certainly enjoys that afterglow thanks to her father. At the same time, her opponents, people who would not vote for Park Geun-hye, see her simply as that: the daughter of a dictator. Therefore, she’s an interesting political figure. Over the last 15 years, Park Geun-hye has been a national assemblywoman, and for a couple of years she was the head of her conservative party, now named the New Frontier Party. So she has good credentials as a leader, as a politician.
Now, like all other successful leaders who are elected in other countries, she ran on the economy. She ran on a platform of growing the economy, stating that she will expand South Korea’s middle class to consist of 70 percent of the entire population. She has promised to expand social welfare, child support, education and so forth.
What impact would President-elect Park have on South Korea’s relations with the United States?
STRAUB: Park Geun-hye will take basically the same approach as the incumbent president, Lee Myung-bak, toward the United States. Lee Myung-bak and the conservatives in South Korea believe that Korea’s alliance with the United States is absolutely essential to South Korean security. And they also agree with the basic U.S. approach: that North Korea must be pressed to give up its nuclear weapons program, and that large-scale aid should be withheld from it until it’s begun to move in that direction.
As far as other issues are concerned, the conservatives in South Korea want to have good relations with China, but they don’t see any sort of “zero sum” relationship between South Korea’s relations with China on the one hand and with the United States on the other.
LEE: The next South Korean leader, will have, I would say, a significant, if not profound, impact on America’s North Korea policy.
The opposing candidate, Moon, had quite explicitly professed he would return to that Sunshine Policy, unconditional aid, engagement policy toward North Korea. And that had the potential to cause some friction between Washington and Seoul.
In the eyes of Washington, Park is a known entity: She can be trusted. She has been a very successful and powerful politician over the last 15 years. She was the head of her party, which is identified as being pro-U.S.: This means it has a far greater propensity to coordinate with Washington on North Korea policy, as well as policy toward East Asia.
Did North Korea’s rocket launch last week impact Park’s calculations on how she will deal with North Korea?
STRAUB: The recent North Korean missile launch probably had relatively little effect on the election campaign or the views of either of the two major party candidates. Park Geun-hye is conservative. She believes that North Korea’s actions stem basically from the nature of its system, and so she probably was not very surprised by what North Korea did.
LEE: Intuitively, one would think any act of provocation by North Korea would actually give momentum to the more conservative candidate — that is, the more hard-line in terms of policy towards North Korea. I would say the effect is the exact opposite. South Koreans have grown so immune to North Korean threats and provocations over the past 60 years.
Whenever North Korea causes trouble — and in 2010, we saw North Korea blow up a South Korean navy ship, and also shell an inhabited South Korean island — the impulse among South Koreans in the general sense is, of course, indignation, but very soon thereafter, a yearning to calm things down. That is, not to retaliate in any way, not to escalate tension with North Korea.
So I would say North Korea’s provocative missile test last week actually was intended to give momentum to the more pro-engagement, pro-North Korea candidate, Moon, who had billed himself as the candidate of peace and reconciliation.
Moon came out and instead of blaming North Korea, blamed the ruling party, the current president and again billed himself as the most capable person in resolving this issue, North Korea’s repeated provocations. He emphasized the need for dialogue, for negotiations, for generous aid to North Korea. And he used that incident as a reminder to the electorate that we need good relations, we need a person who is not confrontational, who would not shy away from concessionary diplomacy for the sake of peace and calm on the Korean Peninsula.
Park has also campaigned on resuming talks with North Korea — speaking of confrontation and hard-line policy will not win you votes. At the same time, she is someone who really values keeping her promises. I’m sure she will make an effort to engage with North Korea.
She favors engagement, economic cooperation and even resuming South Korea’s tourism project, which brought tourists to a mountain resort in North Korean territory. But a South Korean woman was killed there in July 2008 by North Korean guards. Park wants an apology from North Korea, or a firm statement that the safety of South Koreans will be guaranteed if such a program were to continue. She’s even open to having a summit meeting with the North Korean leader, given that the North Korean leadership demonstrates that it is sincere about approaching South Korea in nuclear negotiations and reconciliation talks.