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Rising Stars & Provocateurs

People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but eventually everyone will.

Park Geun Hye wearing a blue suit against a yellow backdrop and an American flag behind her.
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The look of leadership

Source: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg/Getty

At a White House press conference, May 7, 2013

South Korea’s Park Geun-hye

The Leader Who May Rein in North Korea

Why you should care

Fresh off of a European tour during which she dazzled leaders from England to Belgium, President Park is holding a hard line with Japan and forging a new path with North Korea.

An engineer by profession, as well as an atheist (in a country that is approximately 27% Christian, the dominant religion), Park, 61, was literally drafted by her anticommunist dictator father, Park Chung-hee, in 1974 when he called her back from Grenoble, where she was studying to be a professor.

The occasion?

The mistaken assassination of her mother by North Koreans (they were aiming for him). When he was informed of his wife’s death in the middle of a speech he was giving, Park noted it, and continued on with his speech.

This sort of laser focus is a familial trait, and it’s precisely what has allowed Park to persevere and ultimately prosper as a politician in South Korea, a country that borders and is forever intertwined with the bellicose and difficult North Korea. Case in point: In 1979, when she was told that her father had been assassinated, she first inquired about the possibility that North Korea was attacking.

Black and white photo from left to right, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, Mrs Chung Hee Park, Pres. Chung Hee and Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson

Park Geun-hye’s parents

Source: Time Life Pictures/Getty

President Park Chung-hee and his wife, Yuk Young-soo, with Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson

And while Park Geun-hye is neither the first female head of state nor the first one to stand toe-to-toe with the possibility of a nuclear conflagration, she is the only one to have had her face sliced open with a utility knife while campaigning for a fellow party member and then immediately after emergency surgery ask, “How’s Daejeon?” Her courage during that 2006 attack and, again, that laser focus, won incredible public sympathy and boosted her party’s candidate for mayor of Daejeon to a win, while also securing Park as a front-runner in the upcoming presidential race. She became so influential that she was dubbed “Queen of Elections .”

Fast-forward to 2012, when she was elected president by the largest percentage of the vote since 1987. Rather than pursuing a familiar script of threat-appeasement-threat, Park is drafting a new course of action on North Korea that trades on her steely focus, iron resolve and her determination to be taken absolutely seriously: South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, is officially no longer fooling around. Instead of appeasement, a trust-building campaign with some clear boundaries (just a vow to wipe North Korea off the map if an attack is leveled), and no playing nice with Japan; all moves that mark a distinct change in tone and timbre from her predecessors.

South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, is officially no longer fooling around.

Which is all that’s been needed for the world to take note: China is backing off of its longtime charges d’affaires in North Korea, opting instead for a saner approach with its number one trading partner, the U.S. And the U.S. is sending “please relax” signals to the southern portion of the Korean Peninsula by way of comforting shows of military support. Park just wrapped up a tour through the E.U., where stops in England, France and Belgium concluded with a pledge from E.U. leaders to support her stance on North Korea and to strengthen economic ties through joint innovation.

Park’s detractors have leveled charges that her imperial and imperious manner is out of step with modern politics. The charge resonated enough during the 2012 election cycle that Park, who is single and has no children, pursued a much more moderate agenda of increased social safety nets and improved general welfare. Eight months later, amid slower-than-expected growth, Park is admitting that the promises that helped her get elected aren’t affordable. Can she hold on to her high approval ratings at home? With her rave reviews abroad, maybe she can bring a bit of that international spotlight glow back to Seoul.

And then?

To the North. Always to the North.

Cover Image: Getty

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Meet The Author Eugene S. Robinson

Eugene S. Robinson digs that which can be dug from the business end of culture cool + aims to look as stylish as possible while doing so. He also has a "sunny" personality. And, yes, you can keep those quote marks right where they are.

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