Park has said she will try to find a middle ground between the two much-criticized approaches of previous presidents — Roh Moo-hyun, who showered North Korea with unconditional aid, and the outgoing Lee Myung-bak, who treated the North as an adversary.
Pyongyang managed to exploit both approaches, continuing with its weapons program — and conducting its first nuclear test — during a long period of South-led engagement, and later turning more violent, launching two fatal attacks on the South, when that engagement was yanked away.
Park has stressed that she will use “robust deterrence” to counter the North Korean military threat. But she says she is also open to meeting with 29-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong Eun “if it helps in moving forward North-South relations.”
Such inter-Korean political meetings, even among lower-level officials, never happened under Lee, according to statistics from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification. But there were 35 such meetings in the five years under Roh.
In Washington, the North is often described as a near-impossible diplomatic target. But in the South, the stakes of division are more personal. Elderly families divided by the Korean War no longer have reunions sponsored jointly by the two governments; they can’t even send mail to one another.
Park’s mother was assassinated 38 years ago in a North Korean-led attack that missed its real target, Park’s father, then-President Park Chung-hee.
“National partition is a sorrow that touches all Koreans,” Park said in a speech before the election, “but for me it is brought to the fore by unimaginable personal suffering.”
Three in five Koreans, according to a recent government poll, believe that Lee took too hard a line against the North during his soon-to-end five-year term. He ended almost all humanitarian aid and economic projects, saying everything would be restored if the North gave up its weapons. He also talked often about the “inevitability” of unification, hinting that the North was unstable and soon to collapse.
Lee had hoped his stance would pressure the North, turning it desperate and compliant. Instead, the North drastically increased its ties with China and continued with its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches, the latest coming earlier this month. During his tenure, Lee maintained close relations with President Obama, traveling to the United States seven times. But he leaves office at a time when Washington is facing growing criticism for its inability to engage with and influence the North.