SEOUL, South Korea — The country’s new president, Park Geun-hye, was sworn into office Monday, facing far more complicated fissures both within South Korea and with North Korea than her father did during his Cold War dictatorship, which ended with his assassination 33 years ago.
Park, 61, is the first child of a former president to take power here, as well as the first woman, a remarkable turn for a country where Parliament, the Cabinet and corporate board rooms are predominantly male and the gender income gap is the widest among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In her address, Park called for the revival of an economic boom her father, Park Chung-hee, had once overseen and urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Park’s return to the presidential Blue House, her childhood home, was a triumphant moment for her and South Koreans loyal to her father. His quashing of dissent and censorship of the press in his 18 years of iron-fisted rule were much maligned among South Koreans during the country’s struggle for democracy.
She was elected Dec. 19, thanks largely to the support of South Koreans in their 50s and older who grew disenchanted with fractured politics and recalled how South Korea under the dictatorship had begun its evolution from a country where per-capita income was just $100 a year into what is now an economic powerhouse whose smartphones, cars and ships are exported around the world.
But Park begins a single, five-year term facing sharp criticism from younger and liberal South Koreans who have no fear of speaking out. When she named Queen Elizabeth I of Britain as her role model, they filled blogs with derision for her sense of entitlement. They openly called her election a return to the past, arguing that the seeds of some of the country’s biggest problems, such as the unruly influence of family controlled conglomerates, were sown under her father and accused her of glorifying his rule.
South Korea’s political rivalries are freewheeling, evidenced most recently by the arrest of a 76-year-old Christian pastor last week who claimed that Park had sex with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il during her visit to Pyongyang in 2002. His videotaped allegations were circulated widely through the Internet.
Meanwhile, two weeks before Park’s inauguration, North Korea detonated an underground nuclear device, testing her campaign promise to reach out to the North to help end five years of diplomatic silence and high tension on the divided Korean Peninsula under her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a fellow conservative.
In her inaugural address, Park said, “North Korea’s recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people, and there should be no mistake that the biggest victim will be none other than North Korea itself.”