News / Asia

    South Korea's Park Seeks Economic Change, Dialogue With North

    South Korea's new president, Park Geun-Hye, arrives for an official dinner at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Feb. 25, 2013.
    South Korea's new president, Park Geun-Hye, arrives for an official dinner at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Feb. 25, 2013.
    South Korea's new conservative president, Park Geun-hye, has used her inaugural address to send a mixed message to Pyongyang about her approach to dealing with long-running tensions on the Korean peninsula.

    Speaking at the National Assembly in Seoul Monday, she demanded that the North "abandon" a nuclear weapons program that included a third nuclear test earlier this month.  Park warned that she will "not tolerate any action" that threatens the lives and security of her people.

    But Park also promised to "build trust" between the two Koreas as part of what she called a "step-by-step" approach on the basis of "credible deterrence." She was elected in December partly on a pledge to renew engagement with the North after the tough stance of her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.

    Interpreting Park's message

    Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Park is likely to focus her initial efforts on working with the international community to impose sanctions on Pyongyang for its February 12 nuclear test.

    The United States and its allies have called for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would tighten penalties already faced by North Korea for conducting nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

    Park Geun-hye:

    • Born in 1952, daughter of former president Park Chung-hee
    • Studied engineering
    • Served as de-facto first lady after her mother was killed
    • Elected to the National Assembly in 1998
    • First launched presidential bid in 2007
    But, Seoul National University professor Jang Yong-Seok said Park also is sending a signal to Pyongyang that a path for dialogue is open, provided that it refrains from further perceived provocations.

    Korea analyst Malcolm Cook of Australia's Flinders University said the new South Korean leader is seeking a balanced approach.

    "She clearly is trying to find a middle way between [former liberal president] Roh Moo-hyun's 'Sunshine Policy' that focused on engagement with North Korea, and her ruling party predecessor who switched to a strong focus on the North Korean military threat," he said.

    "Park will try to do both at the same time, with actions by North Korea determining which of those tracks will be the primary one," said Cook.

    Yoon Yeon-hong, a woman in her mid-50s who attended the inauguration, expressed hope that the new president will follow such a path.

    "We should help the North Korean people, but I don't want President Park to send [humanitarian] aid unconditionally as some former (South Korean) presidents did," she said. "I also hope she will block anything that would help North Korea to make nuclear weapons."

    Establishing economic priorities
     
    In another part of her address, Park said her government will develop a "creative economy" in which science and technology generate new markets and jobs, rather than just the country's traditional manufacturing sector.

    She also emphasized a need for "economic democratization," or policies that help small and medium-sized businesses to "prosper" alongside South Korea's conglomerates, or chaebols.

    Cook of Flinders University said the South Korean economy already is moving in the "creative" direction that Park seeks. He said the president may find it tougher, though, to get chaebols to stop what she called "unfair practices" and "misguided habits" that frustrate their smaller competitors.

    "Every president of South Korea in the democratic era has made same claim. Chaebols are family-run and extremely powerful actors in the economy, accounting for more than two-thirds of total production.  Previous presidents haven't been very successful at reducing their clout, and I think President Park will find it difficult to be any different."

    Hongik University student Choi Jee-hee, who also witnessed the speech, said she hopes the new government will establish a more generous welfare state.

    "I came here to see the inauguration and am hoping President Park will keep promises that she made to South Korean citizens," Choi said. "As I am a university student, I want to see her cut high tuition fees and create more jobs."

    Park told the crowd that she supports a "tailored welfare" system that "frees citizens from anxieties, allows them to maximize their potential... and contributes to the nation's development."

    Gender gap

    As South Korea's first elected female leader, Park also has raised hopes among South Korean women for an easing of social inequalities with men, whose salaries tend to be much higher.

    Cook said the president's gender, though, was not a major factor in her rise to power. He said Park owes more to her status as the daughter of assassinated president Park Chung-hee, who ruled harshly as a dictator for 18 years, but also lifted South Korea out of poverty in the 1960s and 70s.

    "Like many pervious female leaders in Asia, Park's family name and the role her father played in South Korea's economic development certainly favored her more than her gender," he said.

    VOA's Korean Service and Victor Beattie in Washington contributed to this report.

    Michael Lipin

    Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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