Inauguration of South Korea’s New President Park Geun-hye

On February 25, 2013, Park Geun-hye was sworn in as the 11th president of South Korea. She is the country’s first female president and also first elected female head of state in East Asia after she won a historic election in December 2012 with 51.6 percent of popular votes. Upon her inauguration as president, she returned to the Blue House after 33 years, a place she had once lived as the first daughter (and also first lady) of the country when her father Park Chung-hee ruled South Korea as president from 1961 to 1979.

In her inauguration speech, President Park pledged to usher South Korea into an era of hope. She vowed the revival of the domestic economy with a dual focus on “creative economy” and “economic democratization,” and proclaimed to work to achieve the “happiness” of South Korean citizens by establishing a fair society and sound welfare system. She also highlighted the spreading and flourishing of Korean culture as one of the mandates she will work to achieve over the course of her administration. The Park administration takes office amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula with North Korea’s third nuclear test on February 12, 2013. The government reorganization plan and confirmation of cabinet appointments are also still held up in the National Assembly, which will give the Park government a slightly bumpy start.

Q1: How will President Park deal with North Korea?

A1: President Park is arguably the determinative player on future policy directions among six-party members in the aftermath of the North's third nuclear test. As negotiations play out in the UN Security Council on a resolution condemning the tests last week and this week, most of the parties, including the United States and Japan, are in standby mode (for Washington, this is called "strategic patience"), waiting to see what President Park will want to do next on North Korea. During her campaign, Park focused on two aspects of policy: 1)” trustpolitik” by building a relationship with North Korea based on trust, and 2) humanitarian assistance in that Seoul was not averse to providing basic fertilizer and food assistance to help the North Korean people. Despite these positive-sounding tones, Park made clear in her inauguration speech that she would not tolerate North Korean threats to her nation. We do not believe that she will start a version of "sunshine policy 2.0" but instead will be cautious in her approach. She may have little choice in the matter as CSIS Korea Chair’s research finds that North Korea has made a provocation within weeks of every South Korean presidential inauguration since 1992—so fasten your seat belts.

Q2: What about bilateral relations with Japan and China?

A2: President Park seeks improved relations with Korea's two key neighbors but there are challenges in each case. Regarding China, Park's "trustpolitik" was manifest in her transition team sending its first special envoy to Beijing on January 22, headed by Kim Moo-sung, the Saenuri Party's election campaign manager and former lawmaker. The Chinese historically have had a great deal of respect for Park Chung-hee's model of economic development, and they feel a sense of kinship with the Chinese-speaking new president of the country. Bilateral trade was $220.6 billion in 2011 and China's is Korea's top trading partner. Indeed, negotiating a free trade agreement with China will be a priority during her term. But Beijing's continued support of North Korea will remain a short- and long-term challenge for relations with Seoul. Look for her reaction to UN Security Council negotiations, and how much foot-dragging China is seen to engage in to shield its communist ally from additional sanctions.

On Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at CSIS last Friday that South Korea is Japan’s most important neighbor in spite of the continued controversies over historical issues and territorial disputes over islands. He evoked memories of his grandfather’s, former premier Nobosuke Kishi, close ties with President Park's father and the common threats faced by North Korea. Some of this may fall on deaf ears in Seoul as lately tolerance for Japanese off-color historical remarks is at an all-time low. Nevertheless, the new South Korean president understands the importance of strong U.S.-Japan-ROK ties and at a personal level has affinity for Japan. There is also a sense in Seoul that Abe will "behave" on historical and territorial issues until the Upper House elections this summer. In the interim, the Park government's reaction to the next time bomb in bilateral relations—revisions of history textbooks— later next month will be an indicator of the direction in relations.

Q3: What are the key issues for President Park in relations with President Obama?

A3: Park takes office in a historic year for U.S.-ROK relations as 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the alliance (October 1, 1953) as well as that of the armistice that ended the Korean War (July 27, 1953). During her tenure, the United States and South Korea are scheduled to transfer wartime operational command of ROK forces back to the South Koreans in 2015. The two militaries are also expected to complete major progress with the base realignment agreement that effectively moves U.S. facilities and forces away from Seoul and further south to consolidated base facilities at Pyongtaek and Osan. While Seoul eyes a free trade agreement with China, the Obama administration will also be looking to Park to seriously consider joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks. The most immediate issue, however, is the renegotiation of the U.S.-ROK civil nuclear agreement. Look for the intensity of these talks to heat up in the next quarter. The parties have until summer 2013 at the latest to find a solution to this difficult negotiation, or otherwise be perceived as failing on a critical element of alliance cooperation.

Q4: What is the near-term outlook for her domestic economic policy?

A4: In the face of economic headwinds from abroad, sluggish domestic growth with increasing household debt, and a weak employment market, economic rejuvenation will be a major focus of the new government but it is no easy task. Park’s reorganization plan proposes to centralize economic policy planning, her new economic paradigm highlights a creative economy, and her sweeping campaign promises range from new jobs to fair support for small and medium-sized enterprises. With her plan still waiting for approval, some of the president’s domestic economic agenda will be in limbo until the plan, and related appointments, are given the go-ahead. Going forward, the president’s proposed Ministry of Future Planning and Science, if approved, will play a key role in her new paradigm to meld science, technology, and the IT industries. Democratizing the economy will also be a goal met more in the medium- to long-term as this is not a straightforward undertaking. No specifics have yet been spelled out regarding chaebol policy but Park has pledged to be tougher on business corruption. As her cabinet forms, a more detailed domestic economic blueprint should begin to take shape.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ellen Kim is assistant director of the Korea Chair at CSIS, where she is also a fellow. Marie DuMond is a research associate with the Korea Chair at CSIS.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Marie DuMond

Ellen Kim