Park pitches herself as South Korea’s ‘captain’

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Ruling Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye speaks during a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents Club in Seoul, Thursday, November 8, 2012. Park attempts to become the country’s first female president and keep the government in conservative hands in the December 19 election. AP/AHN YOUNG-JOON

SEOUL—South Korea’s presidential frontrunner warned Thursday of a “critically transformative” period ahead for the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia, marked by political flux and potential instability.

Pitching herself as a leader steeled by personal tragedy, Park Geun-Hye, daughter of assassinated military dictator Park Chung-Hee, said the country’s new president would face unprecedented challenges.

She specifically cited the presence of a new and still largely unknown leader in Pyongyang, as well as territorial disputes that are fuelling wider regional tensions at a time of political transition, notably in China.

The situation on the Korean peninsula is “in flux as never before”, while conflicts and tensions in Northeast Asia are “on the rise unlike any other previous period,” Park told a briefing for foreign reporters in Seoul.

“I stand before you as a captain on a ship who is trying to steer her boat in the midst of history’s cascading waters,” she said.

Candidate of the ruling conservative New Frontier Party, 60-year-old Park is bidding to become the country’s first woman president in the December 19 election.

With polls suggesting Park would easily win a three-way race, her two left-leaning rivals announced Tuesday that they would merge their campaigns and field a single candidate to challenge her for the presidential Blue House.

On North Korea, Park promised to pursue a dual policy of greater engagement and “robust deterrence,” and reiterated her willingness to hold a summit with the North’s young leader Kim Jong-Un, who came to power a year ago.

Although it “remains unclear just what policies the new Korean leadership will adopt,” Park said she would resume the humanitarian aid suspended by current President Lee Myung-Bak.

When Lee came to power in 2008 he cut off aid to the impoverished North, saying future food and other shipments would be conditional on progress in persuading Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programme.

Lee is stepping down because the South Korean constitution limits the presidency to a single five-year term.

In the wider region, Park warned of a dangerous “Asian paradox” where a desire for development and cooperation contends with escalating tensions over security issues, especially territorial disputes.

China, Japan and South Korea are locked in bitter, separate sovereignty rows over isolated island chains, in which other regional countries including Vietnam and the Philippines also have a stake.

“The next several years are likely to be critically transformative in shaping the future of the Korean peninsula,” Park said.

Park was just 22 when she assumed the role of de facto first lady when her mother was shot dead in 1974 by a pro-North Korean assassin who was trying to kill her father.

Park Chung-Hee was later assassinated by his own intelligence chief in 1979.

Her father’s legacy has loomed large over Park Geun-Hye’s campaign ahead of the presidential election on December 19.

Widely respected for transforming the impoverished, war-ravaged nation into an economic juggernaut, her father is equally reviled in some quarters for human rights abuses during his 18-year, iron-fisted rule.

Last month, Park publicly apologized to the relatives of victims of her father’s regime and acknowledged that his autocratic style had damaged the constitution.

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