Foreign Affairs

South Korea’s ‘Lady of Steel’ now faces belligerent North Korea

South Korea’s 'Lady of Steel' now faces belligerent North Korea

Hours after Park Geun-hye was projected the winner in South Korea’s heated presidential election Wednesday, the world started to take notice of a conservative who can only be characterized as unique. It isn’t simply that 60-year-old Madame Park is the first woman president in a country whose politics have long been dominated by men or even that she is the daughter of South Korea’s former strongman president Park Chung Hee. Rather, the president-elect is someone who has been tested by adversity and come back to be even tougher.

Park is perhaps the only person on earth 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, the president, in 1979 from the gun of a dismissed member of his administration. While campaigning for re-election to the National Assembly in ’06, Park herself was attacked by an assailant wielding a boxcutter, was hospitalized, and returned to the campaign trail ten days later (she still bears a slight scar on her cheekbone from the attack).

Put another way, South Korea’s new president is a “lady of steel”—just as Great Britain’s Margaret Thatcher was the “Iron Lady” and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

As she assumes office, officials from Seoul to Washington DC will be watching Park Geun-hye closely and waiting for her first “test” from Communist North Korea. Relations between the two Koreas are at a modern low. In March of last year, North Korea sunk the South Korean naval ship “Cheonan.” and has repeatedly pursued uranium enrichment despite earlier promises that it was not going down the path of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Just last month, North Korea’s 29-year-old supreme ruler Kim Jong Un announced to the world that his country launched a long-range rocket that sent a satellite into space. More than a few observers suspect that this is the “dress rehearsal” for a North Korean rocket launcher that could send missiles as far away as the United States.

A hard-liner on dealing with the “hermit kingdom” in the North, Park Geun-Aye rolled up a margin of 52 to 48 per cent of the vote against attorney Moon Jae-in of the center-left Democratic United Party. Under two past presidents, the Democratic United Party pursued a “sunshine policy” –courtship of North Korea through food and financial assistance.. Park charged that the “sunshine policy” gave too much and got too little in return, and that the last center-left president (for whom opponent Moon was top aide) failed to impose conditions on the aid.

Bush was right calling North Korea “evil,” says Park

As a member of the National Assembly in 2002, Park defended then-US President George H.W. Bush’s description of North Korea as “evil,” telling reporters: “What he said was true: that North Korea starved its people while the regime put there efforts on producing weapons of mass destruction.”

In laying out what she calls “Trustpolitik,” Park wrote in Foreign Affairs last year that if North Korea takes genuine steps toward reconciliation and honors existing agreements, “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.”

Drawing red-lines such as this raises the likelihood of an eventual clash between South Korea’s incoming president and North Korea’s tyrant ruler. It also means that South Korea under Park Geun-hye 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.

And it certainly means that the “Lady of Steel” is a world leader worth watching.

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