- By Calie Hill
South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, was sworn in Monday, February 25th, taking the helm of the dynamic northeast Asian state at a tumultuous time–both for the country’s economy and for relations with North Korea.
President Park, daughter of a former leader and a conservative, was voted in on an upsurge of frustration following five years of the departing Lee Myung-bak’s government, which saw a widening of economic inequality, restraints to freedom of speech across South Korea, and two nuclear tests by North Korea.
As Park’s history-making government begins to take shape, the question remains: how will she undertake the vast challenges that lie ahead?
No doubt her biggest foreign policy challenge will be to end five years of deteriorating ties with the North and persuade it to return to negotiations. In her inaugural address, she labeled rival Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test “a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people” and stated that North Korea will be “the biggest victim” if it continues down this path. She also suggested that she would take a more relaxed stance if the North, under the rule of its young leader Kim Jong-Un, was willing to compromise.
Despite the growing pressures issued by international players, the greatest challenge comes from within the homeland. The shadow of her father’s legacy looms large as her administration begins. As the first child of former President Park Chung-hee–who took power after a coup d’etat and ruled for 18 years before being assassinated in 1979 by his intelligence chief–Park seeks to dissuade criticism that she is more than just the daughter of a dictator. His memory continues to divides South Korea. Some credit him as the founder of South Korea’s present prosperity, while others view him as a dictator who discounted human rights and crushed dissent. Park has been criticized for not doing enough to remove herself from his legacy, despite apologizing for the human rights violation that occurred during his rule.
Regardless of her dark past, Park is recognized for breaking traditional barriers to women in government and business to become the first woman to win her country’s presidency. South Koreans look forward with hope that this historic figure will promote–as she promised–“economic rejuvenation, the happiness of the people, and the flourishing of our culture.”