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South Korea's 'Iron Lady' Park Geun-hye comes to Washington

Yonhap News Agency via EPA

South Korean President Park Geun-hye waves at Seoul Airport before departing for the United States on May 5.


SEOUL, South Korea – From her tough talk on North Korea to her penchant for large brooches on her power suits, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye has done plenty to become known as South Korea’s “Iron Lady.”

As South Korea’s first female president – inaugurated just in February – Park expressed admiration for Britain’s Margaret Thatcher during her successful run for president. And after Thatcher's recent death, Park praised how she “revived the British economy and led Britain to an era of hope in the 1980s.”

While her critics see her as cold and aloof – the ice queen – others praise the far tougher line she has taken with Pyongyang than her predecessors.

 “I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation,” she warned the North during her inauguration.

She has vowed to hit back hard at any provocations, recently telling South Korean Army officers: “Any country that ignores its starving citizens to focus solely on nuclear weapons and military power will inevitably collapse.” 

Kim Jae-Hwan / AFP – Getty Images

South Korea's new president Park Geun-Hye arrives at the official dinner at the presidential Blue House in Seoul after her inauguration on Feb. 25, 2013.

 The 61-year-old president will meet President Barack Obama in Washington on Tuesday and addresses Congress Wednesday, but the message she’ll bring to Washington is likely to be more nuanced than her domestic rhetoric.

“Whether she will be tougher or softer on North Korea will depend on North Korea,” said former South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo, who remains close to the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential house. “She will try and engage North Korea if North Korea is willing and responsive.”

And reports on Monday that the North has stood down two medium range missiles that had been primed for testing have set an intriguing tone for the summit. 

South Korean political family
She's certainly got the pedigree for a harder line. Park is the daughter of South Korea’s former military strongman Park Chung-hee. He was president for 18 years after seizing power in 1961. 

When she was just 22 her mother was shot dead by a North Korean assassin’s bullet aimed at her father, and for five years she assumed the duties of first lady – until her father also was assassinated, by his own spy chief, in 1979.

Saenuri Party via Reuters

South Korea's Park Geun-hye, center, poses with her father and then-President Park Chung-hee and her mother Yuk Young-soo along with her younger brother and sister in Seoul.

In 2006 Park Geun-hye herself was attacked, a convicted criminal slashing her face while she was meeting voters. She needed 60 stitches during surgery.

Given her avowed admiration for Thatcher, she has often been compared to the former British leader. 

“They are both women of principle, courage and experience as well as strong leadership,” said former Prime Minister Han.

Her father still generates strong and polarized emotions in Korea, and last year she issued a public apology for human rights abuses committed under his rule, though she’s also described the 1961 coup as necessary.

The election of Park, who has never married and has no children, has raised hopes among women in a country that was recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality.

As South Korea's President Park Geun-hye visits President Barack Obama in Washington, former South Korean Prime Minister Han Seung-soo discusses why she's been labeled the "Iron Lady."

“Gender is not a barrier to high office in Korea anymore,” said Han. He pointed out that Park has sacrificed her personal life for the good of the nation. “She’s a very kind, warm-hearted lady but on making important decisions she’s very firm.”

Park was first elected to South Korea’s National Assembly in 1998, and when you take that together with her family experience in the Blue House, “she’s one of the most experienced presidents we could have,” Han says. 

‘Venomous swish of the skirt’
Her challenges are daunting, with North Korean relations at rock-bottom after weeks of blood-curdling rhetoric from Pyongyang – especially some targeted right at Park.

“The frenzy kicked up by the South Korean warmongers,” thundered the North’s Ministry of People’s Armed Forces, “is in no way irrelevant with the venomous swish of skirt made by the one who again occupies the Blue House.”

CBS Nocutnews via AP

Park Geun-Hye, chairwoman of the Grand National Party, is attacked by an assailant with a box cutter while campaigning ahead of local elections in Seoul on May 20, 2006. Park suffered a 10-centimeter (4-inch) cut on her face.

All links were severed during the recent tensions, including at the jointly-run Kaesong industrial park. And on Friday the last seven South Korean workers remaining returned from Kaesong industrial park after the South sent in two vehicles loaded with $13 million in cash – described as “unpaid wages.”

To many familiar with the ways of the North, that looked like good old tried-and-tested extortion, and was accompanied by warnings from Pyongyang that Seoul should end its “hostile acts and military provocations” if the zone is to re-open.

Those “hostile acts” appear to be a reference to a joint South Korea-U.S. anti-submarine drill that began Monday in the Yellow Sea and lasts until Friday.

For now, the South is describing the shutdown of the industrial zone as a “suspension” and has not cut the power supply, which originates in the South.

“It’s a difficult time,” said Han, “but she’s well prepared.”