Policymakers everywhere might want to consider three salient traits about South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who is making a high-profile state visit to Washington this week.
First, when she was in her twenties, she suffered the violent deaths of both of her parents. Her mother died at the hand of a North Korean assassin and her father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee, was murdered by an aide five years later. Coping emotionally with that searing experience has surely put steel into Park Geun-hye’s spine.
Second, rising as a woman through the political ranks of South Korea, without question among the world’s most male-dominated societies, has been no mean feat. Park Geun-hye won her first election to the National Assembly in 1998 with 51.5 percent of the vote. She won her fourth election 10 years later with 88.6 percent of the vote.
Third, she seems to be a private, even mysterious person. After her mother’s death, she became her father’s official hostess, a duty she accomplished with charm and grace. However, after her father’s death she disappeared from the public eye for nearly 20 years before re-emerging into politics. She has never married.
The new president, the first woman to be elected to head South Korea, has made clear her intentions toward North Korea. She has called for building trust between north and south, but has asserted that this “rests on strong deterrence and it is not a policy of appeasement.”
And while she may propose ways to deal with the North that sound “soft,” her counterpart in Pyongang, Kim Jong-un, “should know that if push comes to shove, she will stare him down,” South Korean academic and adviser Lee Chung-min said.
Against this backdrop, several commentators, both from South Korea and the West, have already suggested that Park Geun-hye will turn out to be the “Iron Lady of Korea.”
Park Geun-hye met US President Barack Obama in the White House on Tuesday. The agenda apparently had no surprises: the North Korean threat, trade and other economic issues, ways to strengthen the alliance between the US and South Korea on the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
US defense officials and military officers have been quietly critical of previous South Korean governments, allegedly for failing to take full responsibility for the defense of their nation. In large part, that means resisting increases in military spending.
Perhaps the more interesting event was Park Geun-hye’s address to a joint meeting of the US Senate and US House of Representatives yesterday.
“Given the North Korean regime’s recent provocative actions, President Park’s address to Congress will serve as a vital and timely reminder that Americans and South Koreans will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder,” US House Speaker John Boehner said.
Most foreign leaders who are invited to address the US Congress have been established political leaders, not newly elected like Park Geun-hye; she was inaugurated in February.
In the past five years, those who have addressed the Congress have included former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye’s predecessor.
Others include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, former Mexican president Felipe Calderon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former British prime minister Gordon Brown and former Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahearn. In sum, Park Geun-hye will be in good company.
South Korean officials have suggested that their president will call for a multilateral initiative in Northeast Asia in which China, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia and the US seek to resolve environmental issues. If such an effort was successful, members would step up to more difficult issues, such as maritime security.
Another if: North Korea would be invited to join the initiative if Kim could give assurances that his regime would live up to whatever agreements they made. Pyongyang’s record on this score is not good, which may be the understatement of the week.
In addition, Park Geun-hye has brought with her a large entourage of business executives from the chaebol, or conglomerates, who will be meeting with US executives to discuss trade.
This is significant as the US has long complained that Seoul blocked many US exports to South Korea.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.