S. Korea president begins with bold agenda

South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, was sworn into office this past Monday. Conservative in philosophy and focused on defense, she inherits a slowing economy and tense relations with North Korea, though her political goals offer potential for success.

Geun-hye’s ascension to the presidency is notable, as the country’s Parliament and big businesses are predominantly male, and the gender income gap is incredibly wide. She is also the first child of a former president to take power. Her father, Park Chung-hee, was an authoritarian ruler from 1961 to 1979, and pioneered Korea’s modernization efforts. Until the 1960s, the country was incredibly poor following the Japanese colonization and Korean War, but this was quickly remedied during Park’s rule, known as the “miracle on the Han river.”

Today, his daughter is calling for a second miracle on the Han River, outlining plans for economic betterment and public security.

Park’s role in the political sphere dates back to her early twenties. Following her mother’s assassination by a pro-North Korean terrorist, she took her place as First Lady during her father’s rule until his own assassination five years later. These tragedies have helped fuel Geun-hye’s current political efforts as well as her public image. She speaks openly about the death of her parents, asserting that South Korea has become her family; its prosperity being her only source of happiness.

One of the most important tasks Park faces as President is maintaining safety and public security for South Korea. In her presidential address she urged Kim Jong-un, the newly installed leader of North Korea, to abandon his nuclear program. North Korea has also been  militarily active as of late, firing ballistic missiles and pursuing military advancements, likely in efforts to help Kim Jong-un assert his dominance. On February 12, North Korea’s third underground nuclear test was conducted, resulting in a 5.1 magnitude earthquake and raising many international concerns, not to mention causing South Korea to raise its military alert status. Park details a policy of alignment with North Korea, believing that neither passive accommodation nor hard-liner foreign policy will bring about improvement; she opts instead for a middle-road approach.

Given her long experience in politics, Park has the potential to persuade Kim Jong-un to pick up negotiations with South Korea. The former president of South Korea, Lee Myung-bak, did not make any headway in improving relations with the North, enforcing a hard-liner policy that led to a deterioration in dialogue. Now, at a time when both North and South Korea have new heads of government, there is potential for serious improvement – if North Korea is willing. Perhaps Kim Jong-un will want to make changes to help revive his country’s economy, or curb the unbridled famine. As of yet, the relationship between the two countries is tense, and it is critical—in light of recent nuclear activity—that Park’s foreign policy efforts are more successful than her predecessor’s to restore relations between the two nations.

Another aspect of Park’s plan as president is to bring South Korea’s economy back to full power, while helping to curb some of the unsettling and unfair practices brought about by big business. South Korea is full of large businesses and conglomerates, but they are too powerful and economic growth has not been spreading fairly. Medium and small business face unfair competition, and even university graduates have trouble landing jobs within the confines of the country. Park wishes to provide incentives for smaller businesses to help reduce economic inequality.

Perhaps most relevant at a social level, Park aims to reform the welfare system and educational structure to bring about future economic growth while ensuring the happiness of the people. South Korea is an aging society with a declining birthrate, which renders its social security systems weak and fragile. She plans to fix the inadequate welfare system for the elderly. Additionally, she wants to lower the expenses for raising a child and for education—as expenses are currently so high that the they contribute to the nation’s falling birth rate. People are having trouble finding jobs within the confines of the country, and the cost of education needs to be lowered so that this economic growth can be sustained.

In a step to reform the education system, Park envisions a change towards a more merit-based system, giving incentives for upward job progress rather than only looking at academic credentials. Stressing the importance of science and technology, she advocates movement towards a creative, innovative economy with enough incentives to keep small businesses and large conglomerates satisfied. Continual improvement in science and technology is essential for South Korea, as the country lacks natural resources and the ability to be energy independent. However, the country has found its niche in the manufacturing sector, with Samsung and other large corporations excelling in the international market. For South Korea to continue wielding economic power, Park believes it is crucial to maintain focus in science and technology while giving more people access to postsecondary education.

Park has an ambitious vision for South Korea—aiming to ensure public safety while improving the economy through fairer business practices and educational reform. It will be interesting to see how she addresses foreign policy with North Korea, especially if the Kim Jong-un continues spurring nuclear development. I would like to be hopeful that her middle-road diplomatic stance will lead to improvement, particularly as the living standards in North Korea grow increasingly bleak. However, it is too early to tell how the two countries will interact. With respect to the economy, I applaud her efforts to curb the influence of large corporations, as smaller sectors of the economy should be given the opportunity to develop. Additionally, lowering the cost of education will help create a more productive society. A focus on education is, in my opinion, essential to the positive development of any nation. Park has boldly stated that her tenure as president of South Korea will be the second miracle on the Han River, and the world is keen to see how her implementations will affect foreign policy and the economy on a domestic and international level.

 

—Sara Lobo ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.

 

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