Incoming South Korean president Park Geun-hye, basking in her election as her nation’s first female leader, yesterday promised to stand tough on national security despite seeking engagement with North Korea.
In her first policy address since her historic win on Wednesday, Park stressed the “grave” security threat posed by the North as underscored by last week’s rocket launch.
She also pledged to work for regional stability in Northeast Asia where South Korea, China and Japan are engaged in a series of bitter territorial disputes.
“The launch of North Korea’s long-range missile symbolically showed how grave the security situation facing us is,” Park said.
“I will keep the promise I made to you to open a new era on the Korean Peninsula, based on strong security and trust-based diplomacy,” she added.
During her campaign, Park had distanced herself from the hardline policy of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who suspended major humanitarian aid to the North.
Park had promised a dual policy of greater engagement and “robust deterrence,” and had not ruled out a summit with the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, who came to power a year ago.
Analysts say she will be restricted by hawks in her ruling conservative New Frontier Party, as well as an international community intent on punishing the North for what it saw as a disguised ballistic missile test.
“Given her basic stance towards Pyongyang and the rocket launch, she is unlikely to be the first mover in improving relations with the North,” said Hong Hyun-ik of the Sejong Institute think tank.
“But she won’t object if the second [US President Barack] Obama administration moves to engage the North in dialogue after the dust over the rocket launch has settled,” Hong said.
China congratulated Park on her election and pushed for an improvement in Seoul’s ties with Pyongyang.
“We hope the North and South of the Korean Peninsula can resolve their problems through peaceful means and realize a lasting peace,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying (華春瑩) said.
Park promised to work on building trust in Northeast Asia, but, in an aside clearly aimed at Japan, stressed that stability had to be based on “a correct historical perception.”
Seoul and Tokyo are embroiled in a sovereignty row over a tiny group of South Korea-controlled islands in the Sea of Japan. Japan is mired in a separate, but similar dispute with China.
Park’s election victory over her liberal rival Moon Jae-in, by a margin of 51.6 percent to 48 percent, reflected the polarized nature of the electorate.
Park is the daughter of the former military ruler Park Chung-hee — who ruled from 1961 to 1979. Park Chung-hee’s legacy loomed large over his daughter’s campaign and, in an apparent effort at reconciliation, she publicly acknowledged abuses under his regime and apologized to families of the victims.
Yesterday morning she paid her respects at her father’s grave, and also at the grave of one of his bitterest critics and political rivals, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung.
“I will try to break the vicious circle which has caused such extreme division and discord in the last half-century,” she said afterwards.
While North Korea and other regional tensions will top her foreign agenda, Park Geun-hye’s immediate challenge will be to deliver on the domestic issues that dominated the election.