Thursday, 20 December 2012

SOUTH KOREA: '': Park Geun-hye, first female president's expectations

Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hye, was elected president of South Korea on Wednesday, defeating her liberal opponent, Moon Jae-in, and becoming the first female leader of the country.

The 60-year old conservative, Park Geun-hye, will return to the presidential palace in Seoul where she served as her father's first lady in the 1970s, after her mother was assassinated by a North Korean-backed gunman.

With more than 88 percent of the votes counted, Park led with 51.6 percent to 48 percent for her left-wing changeller, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, giving her unassailable lead that forced Moon to concede.

While the campaigns of Park, of the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, and Moon, of the progressive opposition Democratic Unity Party, focused mainly on the slowing economy and other domestic economic issues, the candidates took significantly different lines on foreign policy, particularly when it came to North Korea.

The main foreign policy difference that came out of the campaign was the pace and conceptual approach in dealing with North Korea.  They both indicated that they wanted to engage North Korea in dialogue, but Park’s approach, albeit more generous than the current approach that the Lee Myung-bak administration is taking, is still essentially a conditions-based approach.

Park has said she would negotiate with Kim Jong-un, the youthful leader of North Korea who recently celebrated a year in office, but wants Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapon program as a pre-condition for aid. But Moon would have tried to use economic engagement as a tool for transformation.

On August 15,1974, South Korea's Independence Day, Park Geun-hye, lost her mother, then the country's first lady to an assassin acting under orders from the North Korea. But 38 years later, the conflict on the peninsula persists. The long-simmering tensions between North and South Korea resulted in an acute crisis in November 2010. For the first time since the Korean War, North Korea shelled South Korean territory, killing soldiers and civilians on the Island of Yeonpyeong.

These events starkly illustrated the dual reality of the Koream Peninsula and of East Asia more broadly, but mort importantly they highlight the relative continuity in the mistrustful relationship between North Korea and South Korea under Park.

Two majors reasons are behind this  skepticism: On the one hand, the Korean Peninsula remains volatile. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea, the modernization of conventional forces across the region, and nascent great-power rivalries highlight the endemic security dilemmas that plague this part of Asia. On the other hand, South Korea's extraordinary development, sometimes called the Miracle on the Han River, has , alongside China's rise, become a major driver of the global economy over the past decade.

While some issues, such as North Korea policy, will require coordination, nothing in the Park platform is likely to “catch the U.S. flat-footed. Park remains a firm supporter of a trade pact with the United States that and looks set to continue the free-market policies of her predecessor, although she has said she would seek to spread wealth more evenly.

When it comes to China, Park is likely to work to improve relations while also maintaining South Korea’s strong alliance with the U.S. Park realizes South Korea needs a constructive relationship with China, in part because China’s cooperation is essential in dealing with North Korea.

But Park will have to show China the alliance with the U.S. is not directed primarily toward China, but rather is focused on North Korea and other South Korean interests.

While Park does not want to abandon the platform that is provided by the alliance relationship with the U.S., which essentially allows South Korea to punch above its weight in relations with China, the challenge is to find the right balance to show a willingness to cooperate with China, but without giving China a veto on South Korea’s own security choices.

One development to watch will be whether South Korea and Japan can manage their differences, or at least “find a way of ensuring that the existing differences do not spin out of control,”.

The return of the Liberal Democratic Party to power in Japan will create problems for Seoul, particularly because of the sensitive issue of “comfort women” and the fact that Shinzo Abe, the presumptive new prime minister of Japan, denies the Japanese forced these South Korean women into sex slavery during World War II.

The onus for a positive relationship with Japan under a Park administration is really going to lie with Japan, particularly as Park will be the first woman president of South Korea, she might not be able to ignore the comfort women issue.

This makes it all the more apparent that Japan will have to adjust its stance on the issue “as a prerequisite to being able to move forward.”

One of the major characteristics of Park’s circumstances is her father negotiated the normalization agreement with Japan. The agreement isn’t contested, but the relationship still has a big political component in South Korea, and that circumstance constrains Park to a certain degree in terms of the extent to which she can actively reach out.

The information revolution, globalisation and democratization clashing with competitive instincts of the region powers, Japan and China, and the Korean Peninsula volatility, military brinkmanship, and above all North Korea policy and South Korea economy, will be Park Geun-hye first concerns.

Although Park Geun hye's policy could be sometimes sketchy, she will need to adopt a bolder and more creative approach to achieve these goals and impress the world.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist
Researcher and Author