Skip to:

South Korea to inaugurate first female president


President-elect Park Geun-hye of South Korea spoke at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center in 2009.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

Park Geun-hye was sworn in as South Korea’s president on Feb. 25, becoming the first woman to hold the position and the first top female leader of a Northeast Asian country.

Park narrowly defeated her progressive rival in a Dec. 19 election to succeed Lee Myung-bak, her fellow conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party member.

She joins a changing group of leaders in the region, including a new top-tier set of officials in China, recently elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan, and young Kim Jong-un in North Korea.

Following the December election, a group of Stanford experts came together to share views on the regional and domestic challenges Park could face in the early days of her administration.

President Lee Myung-bak has been criticized for taking a tough stance in South Korea’s relations with Pyongyang. What direction could North Korea policy take under Park Geun-hye’s administration?

David Straub: Park Geun-hye has been implicitly critical of President Lee Myung-bak’s “hard line” North Korea policy. She has said that she will provide large-scale food aid to North Korea, largely without conditions, and also that she wants to have a process of mutual confidence building, which she calls “trustpolitik.” But she has stressed the importance of North Korea’s denuclearizing, and made clear she will link progress in North-South relations to this. Her fundamental approach to North Korea is likely to be similar to President Lee’s, but she will probably make a strong push to have talks with Pyongyang after she is inaugurated.

Gi-Wook Shin: North-South relations are also dependent on North Korea’s actions. Lee Myung-bak had intended to promote engagement with North Korea, but he was led to taking a tough stance due to incidents like the 2008 shooting of a South Korean tourist in a restricted area near the Mount Kumgang resort, and the 2010 sinking of the naval corvette the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

How do you think Park will balance South Korea’s relationship with long-time ally the United States and with “rising” China?

Shin: There is a general perception in South Korea that Lee Myung-bak stressed the U.S.-Korea alliance at the expense of Korea’s relations with China. Madame Park may intend to “adjust” the Korea-China relationship, but it is difficult at this point to say how and to what extent she will do so. In theory it is easy to talk about establishing stronger relations, but it is much harder to implement. The bottom line is that she will probably stress the value of the alliance with the United States, and also try to reach out more to China and North Korea.

Michael H. Armacost: The personal rapport between President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak is quite extraordinary. But beyond this, President Lee has aspired to be a global player and America has helped facilitate that. A partnership that benefits South Korea in such a way may be an enduring feature of its policy. In addition, if China continues to pursue a more assertive foreign policy, then this will highlight the need for Korea to keep the United States in the picture for security reasons, even as Korea expands its economic ties to Beijing. The relationship between the South Korea and the United States is very strong now, and I do not see any reason to expect it to deteriorate.

Japan elected Shinzo Abe as prime minister just days before Korea elected Park Geun-hye as president. How could relations between the two countries develop under their respective new administrations?

Daniel C. Sneider: In the past year, there has been a lot of tension between Japan and South Korea. Some of Shinzo Abe’s views about wartime historical issues are particularly offensive to Koreans, and he has not signaled a desire to focus on improving relations between the two countries. Park Geun-hye, unlike previous Korean leaders, will probably not come into office talking about the need to improve relations with Japan. President Park Chung-hee, her father, had served as a Japanese military officer and normalized relations between the two countries in 1965. For reasons related to her family’s history, as well as to the politics surrounding Korea-Japan relations, I do not see Madame Park rushing to open the door to Japan. For American policymakers, the tensions in the Korea-Japan relationship are going to be a matter of some concern, since both are American allies and important to dealing with North Korea as well as encouraging rising China to act as a stakeholder in the region.

Park will become Korea’s first female president, as well as the first woman to lead a Northeast Asian country. Is this a sign of changing social attitudes, or does it have more to do with her family’s political legacy?

Shin: Overall, female participation in Korean politics has increased over the years, but Park Geun-hye’s case is unique. After a North Korean agent killed her mother in 1974, Madame Park was only in her twenties and yet she went on to serve as Korea’s first lady. Her father was then assassinated by his top security chief in 1979, and she went into a sort of political “exile” for nearly two decades. When she initially returned to politics, her name certainly helped her a lot, but in the end I think she emerged as a strong leader due to her own merit.

Sneider: The pattern in Asia has been that women leaders have all been second-generation members of prominent political families. It does not mean that they are not qualified, but rather that they are more accepted in societies where women do not usually serve in a leading political role. The election in Korea is probably a sign of change, but not necessarily a sign of fundamental social change.

What domestic challenges could Park initially face after her inauguration in February?

Shin: There are two tough challenges Madame Park will probably face during her early days in office. This election has shown that Korean society is deeply polarized between progressives and conservatives. Roughly one half of the country supported Madame Park’s candidacy, while the other half opposed it. How to unite those two sides will be her first challenge. Her other challenge will be economic development, with pressure to provide more social welfare. Korea’s economy is doing comparatively well, but it is still not in the strongest shape.

Park Geun-hye visited Stanford in May 2009, to present the Shorenstein APARC-hosted address “Korea and the U.S. in a Rapidly Changing World.”