Foreign Affairs

South Korea’s ‘Iron Lady’ could be important ally in Asia

South Korea's 'Iron Lady' could be important ally in Asia

It has been said that South Korea’s Park Geun-hye has the same steely determination that made Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel the “Iron Ladies” of politics in the United Kingdom and German respectively. Like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash), vice-chairman of the House Republican Conference in the U.S., Ms. Park rocketed to prominence in her country’s Congress, the National Assembly.

And, like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Park carried on the family tradition in politics from a slain father. Park, in fact, may be one of the few people anywhere to have had both parents assassinated — her mother, then their country’s first lady, in 1974 by a bullet meant for her father from a gunman under orders from North Korea, and her father, then-President Park Chung Hee, in 1979 from the gun of a dismissed member of his administration.

In December, Park Geun-hye stands an excellent chance of becoming South Korea’s first woman president. Polls show Park, nominee of the New Frontier (conservative) Party, leading opponents Moon Jae-in of the center-left Democratic United Party and independent Ahn Chui-soo.

The historic nature of a “President Park” aside, this most interesting lady could well become a key U.S. ally in an increasingly turbulent Asia. As North Korea becomes increasingly belligerent toward its neighbor to the South and China’s politics seem erratic and sometimes mysterious, a reliable friend in that part of the world would be tremendously beneficial for the U.S. and its next president.

Coupled with the increasing likelihood of a more right-of-center government coming to power in Japan next year, a South Korea under Park Geun-hye could mean that our allies in the Pacific might just be ready to assume a larger role in dealing with insurgent nations rather than relying heavily on the U.S. — a doctrine first advanced by President Nixon in Guam in July of 1969 and advocated today by many of his former associates, notably syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan.

“Trustpolitik” is what Park promises will be her doctrine of dealing with North Korea’s old-line Stalinist dictatorship, which destroyed the South Korean naval ship “Cheonan” in March of last year and repeatedly pursues uranium enrichment despite earlier promises that it was not going down the path of acquiring nuclear weapons.

By “Trustpolitik,” Park wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, “first, North Korea must keep its agreements with South Korea and the international community to establish a minimum level of trust, and second, there must be assured consequences for actions that breach the peace.”

While vowing that if North Korea takes genuine steps toward reconciliation and honors existing agreements, Park says “the South should match its efforts. An alignment policy will, over time, reinforce trustpolitik.” However, she quickly adds, South Korea “must first demonstrate through a robust and credible deterrent posture, that it will no longer tolerate North Korea’s increasingly violent provocations, It must show Pyongyang that the North will pay a heavy price for its military and nuclear threats.”

That means, she wrote in no-uncertain terms, “Seoul has to mobilize the international community to help dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Under no circumstances can South Korea accept the existence of a nuclear-armed North Korea.

And should North Korea keep heading in the nuclear direction, Park vows her country will “consider all possible responses in consultation with its principal ally, the United States, and other key global partners.”

Strong medicine, all right. Perhaps because of her tough talk and charges by opponents that she was “heavily influenced by the way her father ruled” during his eighteen years as South Korea’s strongman, Park recently announced a strongly-worded apology “to all those who were personally hurt and family members of government abuse.”

But surveys indicate that voters are less concerned about abuses that occurred under Park Geun-hye’s father in the past and are increasingly concerned about outside threats in the future. For this reason, South Koreans seem likely to turn to their own “Iron Lady,” and one very likely beneficiary could be the U.S.

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