- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

SEOUL — In an unprecedented development, South Korea’s main opposition Grand National Party yesterday chose a woman, Park Geun-hye, to lead it into the April 15 legislative elections.

It was the second stunning act in Korean politics in less than two weeks, matching in surprise a March 13 vote to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun.

In South Korea’s male-dominated Confucian culture, this is the first time that a woman has been selected to lead a major political party. At 52, she is young by the standards of politics in the country.

Mrs. Park is the eldest daughter of President Park Chung-hee — the general who took power in a coup in 1961, oversaw the beginnings of South Korea’s “economic miracle,” and was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

“For Korean politics, it is an extraordinary move to elect a woman,” said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of “The Koreans.”

“But rather than being a reflection of her real political skills, this could be a [public relations] move by the GNP.”

The party is in the midst of a political crisis in the wake of the divisive vote to impeach Mr. Roh. Political observers say the GNP, whose political base is among older, more conservative voters, may benefit from a youthful, female figure at the helm. The Uri (“Our Open”) Party, which supports Mr. Roh, projects a younger, more liberal image.

Mr. Roh has been stripped of his powers and is awaiting a decision by the Constitutional Court on his political future. Prime Minister Goh Kun is running the country as acting president.

Most analysts think that the grounds for impeachment — Mr. Roh’s call for public support of the Uri Party in the election —did not merit the sanction, although the president is constitutionally obliged to remain above politics.

Opinions polls indicate that about 70 percent of the public also are against the impeachment, suggesting that the Uri Party will gain seats at the GNP’s expense.

“Obviously, the GNP is reeling from the aftershock of the impeachment, [and] needs a very quick image transformation,” said Lee Jung-hoon, a political science professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “They have to go from an old, corrupt party to a fresh, dynamic, forward-looking party.”

Choe Byung-yul stepped down last month as the GNP’s leader, owing to declining popular support and recent corruption scandals that have rocked the party.

Mrs. Park won the party ticket in a combination of a vote by party members and the results of public polls, beating five male rivals.

In 2002, Mrs. Park met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, son of her father’s great adversary, Kim Il-sung, the North’s “Great Leader.” Analysts say she may prefer a softer line toward the North than her party’s hawkish position.

At a forum on South Korean diplomacy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Han Sung-joo, South Korea’s ambassador to the United States, said the Roh impeachment would have “no immediate impact” on Seoul’s foreign policy, noting the government’s ability to press forward with difficult decisions such as the dispatch of 3,000 troops to Iraq despite the political crisis.

But Victor Cha, a specialist on Korean politics at Georgetown University, said the basic inertia of South Korean policy — whether under Mr. Roh or his political opponents — toward the North remains a source for clashes with the Bush administration.

Washington, he said, sees the confrontation with North Korea as part of the global war on terrorism and weapons proliferation, while most South Koreans see the struggle as one leading to eventual reconciliation and reunification of North and South.

David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington

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