On Wednesday, Park Geun-hye was elected the 11th president of the Republic of Korea. The 60-year-old conservative will, in February, be inaugurated as the first female leader of her nation.
The atmospherics of the campaign revolved around Park’s deceased father, Park Chung-hee, the dictator who in the 1960s and 1970s created the economic miracle that propelled the South past North Korea, which up until then was the more prosperous state on the Korean peninsula. Many conservatives venerate the elder Park, who is reviled by the progressives—leftists—in South Korean society.
North Korea was not the main issue in the campaign, and the announced positions of Park and her opponent, Moon Jae-in, on inter-Korean relations were not entirely dissimilar, at least on their face. Both pledged to try to work with Kim Jong Un, the new leader in Pyongyang, and throughout the campaign they each distanced themselves from the strict stance of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak. Yet it is clear Park will not adopt the essentially pro–North Korea “Sunshine Policy” that Moon would have certainly pursued.
And that is important. Destitute North Korea has been able to threaten the international community for decades largely because there has been no unanimity among the major powers as to how to approach Pyongyang. Kim rulers—Kim Jong Un is the grandson of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung—have always had at least one big-power backer.
For a decade starting in the late 1990s, during the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, Seoul gave Beijing cover to play that role and again support its only former military ally. The risk in this election was that Moon, one of the principal aides to President Roh, was set to resume unconditional aid to the North, thereby giving China more excuses to step up material aid and diplomatic assistance to Pyongyang. Park’s victory, however, means that Washington and Seoul will have the opportunity to isolate Beijing and put it on the spot.
Coordination between the US and South Korea during the Clinton and Bush administrations was rare. President Obama, however, has maintained a close relationship with outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, which has resulted in perhaps the best ties between the White House and the Blue House ever. This is not to say Obama and Park will necessarily work as well, but there at least will be no structural impediments between the two long-term allies going forward.
Park’s victory is especially significant as it comes less than a week after elections in America’s “cornerstone” Asian ally. On Sunday, Japanese citizens returned the Liberal Democratic Party to power in the lower house of the Diet, and this means the generally pro-American Shinzo Abe will, next week, return to the prime minister’s office. His first foreign trip will be to Washington, a good sign of where Japan is headed, especially because his first foreign trip as prime minister, in 2006, was to China.
The challenges in East Asia are no smaller today than they were last week. Nonetheless, Washington now has friends it can work with.
Photo Credit: Greek Foreign Ministry