On a cold December day in 2012, Korea elected a new president. And not just another aging political leader, but a relatively youthful 60-year-old woman, Park Geun-hye, who became the country’s 11th president. As a former citizen of South Korea who left the country over three decades ago to escape its male-dominated culture, I was filled with encouragement and pride.
During those 30 years, Korea had made almost miraculous progress in its politics and economy, and now its society was catching up. Although I was no longer a Korean citizen and couldn’t take any credit for getting Ms. Park elected, I did have one small connection with the new president.
Immediately after the election, I received a phone call from the BBC inviting me to comment on the outcome. The BBC had somehow learned that I had been one of Ms. Park’s instructors when she was studying electrical engineering at Seoul’s Sogang University in the early 1970s.
The course was “Korean 101,” otherwise known as “Basic Korean,” comparable to English composition in American universities. In this mandatory class, freshmen practiced their writing skills and learned a minimum of 1,800 Chinese characters to enable them to read contemporary Korean literature.
Most students hated the course because had to read literature and write review essays, not to mention memorize those Chinese characters that seemed to be left over from a bygone era. They considered that their Korean was good enough to succeed in life, and if they had to learn a language, they wanted to learn a modern language like English or French. I imagine Korean students feel the same way today.
As a young graduate student and research assistant at Seoul National University, I took the teaching job at my alma mater Sogang University very seriously. I think I was a pretty tough teacher and took extra time to combat the prevailing tendency of Korean students to plagiarize assignments that they considered unimportant or uninteresting.
As for the future president, she stood out as an honest, sincere and studious student. She submitted her assignments on time and did her own homework. Her writing clearly and plainly conveyed her sentiments, and she received an A in my class.
It is my impression that personality is formed early in life, and in the absence of a near-death experience, stays on the same track over the years. In the young student, I could see the current leader of South Korea as a person of integrity and honesty who worked hard and had little patience with liars and cheaters. Such a person is not always popular, but in the end can be trusted.
Ms. Park did not enter politics after graduation, nor did she become an engineer. Her father was, of course, president of the country, a job he held from 1963 until 1979. He was, in fact, one of the last of the military generals turned presidents, and as such had plenty of detractors among the growing segment of the population that believed Korea deserved to become a democracy.
He is remembered for three things: his dictatorial tendencies, his tough anti-communism and his central role in transforming Korea from a poor developing nation into an economic powerhouse run on rational principles.
Not long after Ms. Park graduated, tragedy struck the first family. On Aug. 15, 1974, a mentally unstable Korean-Japanese resident living in Japan attempted to assassinate President Park. He escaped, but his wife was shot dead. The young Ms. Park took on the duties of a first lady for the next five years.
Tragedy returned to the family in 1979 when her father was shot by his handpicked director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in what was apparently a political power struggle. When the president’s chief of staff informed Ms. Park of her father’s death, she is quoted as asking, with great presence of mind, “Is our front secure?”
It was a reference to the possibility that the assassination was part of a broader North Korean plot. After all, the North Korean government had dispatched an assassination team that almost made it to the Blue House in the late 1960s, and for that matter even today threatens to destroy the presidential mansion and kill the president.
Ms. Park did not jump into national politics after her father was killed. Instead, she spent most of the next two decades in other pursuits, during which time a succession of senior generals and then civilian politicians gradually steered the country to peace and prosperity. It was not until 1997, during the great Asian financial crisis, that she decided to enter politics.
In her autobiography, she writes that she could not stand to see the economy that had been championed by her father wither away. As it turned out, the “Miracle on the Han River” was not washed away by the financial crisis, but recovered quite well. By 1998 a few women were entering Korean politics, and Ms. Park was elected to the Korean National Assembly with a landslide victory, which could be explained in part by a feeling of nostalgia among voters who remembered her father’s accomplishments three decades earlier.
Many anti-Park progressive and pro-North Korean activists belittled her win as no more than a sympathy vote, but this turned out to be a shortsighted and wrong assumption. Ms. Park took her new job as an Assembly member as seriously as she had taken her studies in college, becoming a dedicated, sincere and people-oriented leader not only for her own constituency but also for the national interest.
Still single, she sometimes joked that she had married Korea. Unlike certain other female political leaders who emerged in Asia, she succeeded by dint of hard work rather than corruption. One of her nicknames was “Princess of the Little Notebook” because she got into the habit of carrying a small notebook to jot down ideas, observations and reminders — doing her own work rather than relying on lackeys as the North Korean rulers did. When people are surprised at how good her memory is, she lightly jokes, “Have you forgotten that I’m the Princess of the Little Notebook?”
Now that she was in the political arena, Ms. Park had to master not only the art of governing, but also the skills of political maneuvering. In a political system still largely populated by men, she had to identify and ally with those who would take her seriously as a politician. Like all other Korean politicians at the national level, she had to create a political group around herself that would support her work, regardless of political party. She became known as a political reformer and as someone who had an almost uncanny ability to win elections, thus earning her another nickname: “Queen of elections.”
To gain stature as a “statesman,” she developed skills in international politics, harking back to the time when she met foreign leaders as the lady of the Blue House. In 2002, she even took the opportunity to meet South Korea’s archenemy, North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, thus providing her with some credibility in the important issue of national unification.
In 2012, the “personal politics” of South Korea seemed ready to accept a female presidential candidate, and Ms. Park, building on her experience, influence and accomplishments in the National Assembly, ran a successful campaign to become Korea’s first female president. Without the name recognition of her father, she would likely not have come this far, but by election time everyone had become used to her political presence and she could not count on political nostalgia to win. Her political platform was marked by pragmatism, backed by a conservative bent that she inherited from her father.
The question of how to deal with North Korea and its provocations is always important in Korean politics, and she adopted the slogan of “trust politics,” which could be taken to mean any number of things. Her version was somewhat reminiscent of the political position of the American conservative president, Ronald Reagan, who adopted the policy of “trust but verify” in dealing with the Soviet Union. In Ms. Park’s case, the policy might be called “trust but deter.”
Realizing that the North Korean regime of male chauvinists might try to take advantage of a female South Korean president, Ms. Park made it clear from the beginning that her government would not shy away from using force to repel any North Korean provocations. She also strongly adhered to the U.S.-Korean military alliance that provides an incalculable measure of deterrence against North Korea.
There is a limit to what any leader of a democracy can do. During the first half of her five-year term, South Korea has maintained a successful course in its economy and politics. The South Korean economy has continued to grow and become more integrated with the international economy.
North Korean provocations have been stymied without resort to war, most recently thanks to the willingness of the Park administration to accept an insincere apology from North Korea for its latest provocation. Korea’s relations with China have developed, so far without damaging its relations with the United States. In domestic politics, small scandals have been quickly addressed, thus preventing the emergence of the large scandals that have tarnished other South Korean administrations.
Ms. Park’s popularity has waxed and waned. At the moment, thanks in part to her administration’s ability to defuse the most recent North Korean provocation and her adroit handling of Korea’s relationship with China, her approval rating is above 50 percent, which for a Korean president is comfortably high. Apart from the successes and challenges that a country faces beyond the control of its political leaders, Ms. Park has been most severely criticized for her secrecy and failure to communicate with the public and even with her advisers.
Transparency is considered a virtue in a democracy, even when it limits the scope of its leaders to pursue their favored policies. This reluctance to be open might be traced in part to the model of her father, who ruled with an iron hand during a time when the Korean president was immune to public opinion. Ms. Park’s secrecy might also reflect the cultural milieu in which she is surrounded by male politicians whom she doesn’t completely trust.
Korean politics can be rough. That Ms. Park can hold her own in the arena is a great credit to her intelligence, personal strength and confidence. Up until recently, the National Assembly hall was no stranger to fistfights. A Korean leader can expect little in the way of a political honeymoon and can count on being slandered by the North Korean media, which has an influence on a small but vocal segment of South Korean society.
It is too soon to determine what Ms. Park’s legacy will be, but without doubt it will include her honesty, strength and ability to learn from the hardships she has encountered in Korean political life.
• Kongdan Oh is an Asian Studies specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia.