Park's challenges bigger than other female Asian leaders
Posted : 2013-03-07 21:08
Updated : 2013-03-07 21:08
Park Geun-hye Tsai Ing-wen Yingluck Shinawatra
By Timothy S. Rich
On Dec. 19, Park Geun-hye bested Moon Jae-in with a margin of more than a million votes, thus becoming the first presidential candidate since Korea's democratization to capture a majority of the total vote.
Attracting more attention is that with this victory, the "Queen of Elections" became the first female president in Korea. Although there is no newcomer to national politics, the Park presidency still presents both unique challenges and opportunities.
Park joins a growing number of female politicians on the national stage in East Asia, notably Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand, the latter of which attended Park's inauguration.
However, Park's situation differs from many female politicians in the region. Her success in a presidential election comes after a career in the National Assembly.
Unlike many of the more prominent women in Asian politics, Park has long been a standout in a conservative party. Park also stands in the long shadow of her father, Park Chung-hee, a polarizing figure still more than 30 years after his assassination.
During the campaign, Park arguably managed to walk a fine line in terms of similarities to her father, implying similar goals for economic growth while attempting to distance herself from his authoritarian rule.
Yet Park has also nominated several officials connected to the authoritarian era, suggestive of the potential difficulties Park faces in establishing a distinct legacy.
While prudent to navigate a middle ground during the election season, Park now has an opportunity to guide a national dialogue on the country's authoritarian past and democratic transition.
Park's challenges are multifold. She enters office at a time of both rising nationalism in the region but also with a new generation of leadership in both China and North Korea.
While making improvements in relations with China and Japan certainly deserves attention, how Park engages with the North Korean regime will most likely have the greatest effect on her impact as president. In the wake of North Korea's most recent nuclear test, Park must develop a policy toward Pyongyang that shows Seoul's resolve and that discourages future bellicosity while balancing domestic and even intraparty demands.
Her predecessor Lee Myung-bak's policy on North Korea did little to reduce tensions and provided Pyongyang with ample fodder for its own domestic propaganda. Yet Park is unlikely to radically alter this policy or usher in a new "Sunshine Policy" toward North Korea.
Considering evidence from other female political leaders, including most notably the U.K.'s Margaret Thatcher, one may expect in the short term that Park will adopt a hard-line approach to signal resolve on security issues. Yet Park sees herself as more similar to Germany's Angela Merkel in terms of a less confrontational leadership style.
Conventional wisdom further suggests that female leaders focus more on mutual goals and understanding than confrontation.
Whether this will necessarily translate to a fundamentally different approach to North Korean engagement is unclear, especially considering that a key factor in Park's life was the assassination of her mother by a North Korea sympathizer.
In light of the poor state of inter-Korean relations under the Lee administration, even small shifts by Park to encourage constructive dialogue with North Korea may produce dividends.
Domestic politics provide additional challenges. Political life in East Asia is often characterized as male-dominated, especially compared to its Western counterpart. In Korea in particular, women remain underrepresented in the National Assembly and in most government positions.
As an unmarried female, Park presents a clear contrast to previous administration leaders and to common expectations of gender roles. Media coverage reinforces this contrast as factors unrelated to her ability to lead — such as her fashion choices — receive considerable attention.
While Park's electoral victory has created increased expectations regarding gender issues, it remains unclear how much Park intends to challenge the status quo or whether support exists within the Saenuri Party for a fundamental change in this area.
For example, if appointing women to cabinet is any indication, Park mirrors her immediate predecessor with only two initial appointments, still short of that of former President Roh Moo-hyun's four appointments. Park's initial goals appear less focused on gender, such as promising a "Second Miracle on the Han River" in the face of growing international competition.
Even if Park's policies on gender issues do not differ significantly from her predecessors, Park's legacy on gender issues will likely be more than symbolic.
Whereas liberal and progressive parties are often viewed as more receptive to female candidates, Park provides a strong conservative counterbalance. Furthermore, her broad appeal is a reminder that gender alone does not define a leader.
Timothy S. Rich is an assistant professor of political science at Western Kentucky University.