South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye took the oath of office today as South Korea’s first female president, the first Korean president to have previously lived in the Blue House, and the first Korean president to have visited North Korea prior to her term in office. In her inauguration address, Park vowed to “open a new era of hope” in the face of a global economic crisis and North Korea’s nuclear threat. She pledged a “creative economy” based on scientific and IT innovation, a “new paradigm of tailored welfare” and a merit-based society that enforces social justice through effective rule of law, a Korean cultural renaissance, and step-by-step efforts to build trust-based diplomacy with North Korea and with South Korea’s other partners.
Despite her vision to spread “hope” and “happiness” for South Koreans, Park comes to office facing security challenges she herself qualified as “grave” the day following her election. And though she campaigned as a “prepared female president,” there is growing public concern that her leadership is lacking. Her transition committee has faced a bumpy ride as a result of criticisms that its processes and decisions have lacked transparency, its failed nomination of Park’s first choice to be prime minister over questions of personal ethics, an initial cabinet slate that has been criticized for prizing loyalty over inclusiveness, and a government reorganization plan that has yet to pass South Korea’s National Assembly.
There are continuing anxieties within South Korea that Park may be inclined to take leadership lessons from her father’s authoritarian, growth-driven rule that will not meet the challenges faced by an industrialized and democratic South Korea. As a result, Park enters office with a popularity rating of only 44 percent, down from the mid-fifties immediately following her election and the lowest popularity rating of any incoming South Korean president in the democratic era. Her relatively low popularity figure serves as a reminder of how badly South Korea needs a president who is able to not only reach out across regional, ideological, and class divisions, but also to heal those divisions within South Korean society by choosing and implementing policies effectively and even-handedly. And it is a reminder of how Park must lead Korea towards its future rather than being beholden to its past.
Will Madame Park be up to the task? Given the seriousness of South Korea’s household debt and economic inequality problems as well as rising challenges posed by both North Korea and the regional security environment, both South Korea and the international community need strong and unifying South Korean statesmanship. Park’s political resume is one that has been built through “grace under pressure,” resilience, and the ability to succeed in the face of political adversity. Especially in difficult times, I believe it would be a mistake to underestimate her.