South Korea's New Leader Promises Moderate Path

South Korea will have its first female president, following Wednesday's close presidential election. Park Geun-hye says she will be open to better relations with North Korea, but she leads a conservative party known for its hardline with Pyongyang.

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For the first time in its history, South Korea has chosen a woman as its leader. Park Geun-hye is promising reconciliation with her domestic opponents and dialogue with North Korea. She captured 52 percent of the vote in an election yesterday. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In February, Park Geun-hye will make an historic homecoming to the Blue House, or presidential mansion. She lived there when her father, President Park Chung-hee, presided over an era of military dictatorship and rapid industrialization. Ewha University international relations expert Jasper Kim points out that when her mother was killed by a North Korean sympathizer in 1974, Park became the de facto first lady.

JASPER KIM: Yes, she's been in the Blue House for a long, long time, as a child, and her narrative is compelling. Her father was assassinated. Her mother was murdered. From the ashes of that travesty, she came to be Korea's first female president. That says a lot about her grit and her will.

KUHN: Kim says that now, South Koreans have high expectations that Ms. Park can do less dictating, as her father did, and more listening. In her first press conference as president-elect, Park Geun-hye said she would try to do just that.

PRESIDENT-ELECT PARK GEUN-HYE: (Through translator) I will incorporate differing opinions, approval and disapproval, as I move forward. I will try to put an end to the extreme divisions and conflicts of the past half-century, through policies of reconciliation and impartiality.

KUHN: Park campaigned on a platform of what she calls economic democratization. Jasper Kim interprets this to mean a more compassionate conservatism that increases welfare benefits and helps small and medium enterprises, known as SMEs. Kim says the big conglomerates, called chaebols, have long had disproportionate power over South Korea's economy.

KIM: It's highly dependent on these large conglomerates, the Hyundais, Samsungs, the LGs of the world. But ironically, these large companies only account for 6 percent of the labor force, compared to 92 percent for SMEs. So she has to work with both the producers and the smaller guys, the mom-and-pop stores.

KUHN: At her press briefing, Park also indicated that ensuring national security would be a top priority. She pointed to North Korea's launch of a satellite last week, which was widely condemned by foreign governments.

GEUN-HYE: (Through translator) North Korea's long-range missile launch shows the reality of the security situation we face. I will keep my promise to you to bring a new era to the Korean peninsula, through strong security and diplomacy based on trust.

KUHN: Park has outlined a new approach to engaging with North Korea, reflecting public dissatisfaction with her predecessor's hard-line policies towards the North. She has offered to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and delink humanitarian aid from politics.


KUHN: At a busy downtown crossing facing Seoul's modern city hall, men in guard costumes parade outside an ancient imperial palace. Nearby, 28-year-old Yoon Deok-ju says he's all in favor of dialogue with the North, but only if the North responds with sincerity.

YOON DEOK-JU: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: If they continue to lob missiles, he says, and take the rice and cement we give them and build weapons and implement a military-first policy, then I think they have to change their attitude.

Park has pledged to make economic cooperation dependent on North Korea's behavior, but experts say she will try to chart a course between full-on confrontation and unconditional engagement.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

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