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Landmark Korean election an opportunity

Published December 22. 2012 4:00AM

Park, Geun-Hye, who was elected last Wednesday as the first woman president of South Korea, is perfectly positioned and well-suited to confront her nation's most serious issue and one that that has plagued United States foreign policy and international security for more than 60 years: the matter of North Korea and the deplorable conditions under which its people live.

For the ethnically close-knit Koreans, there is nothing more heartbreaking than the misery North Koreans experience daily under the brutal communist dictatorship there.

The trouble is that no leader up to now has been willing to address the situation with North Korea as the urgent human rights problem that it is.

The division of Korea started out as a Cold War arrangement among great powers. Under the dictatorship of Ms. Park's father, Park Chung-Hee, the North Korean issue was confined to national defense and military preparedness.

After the assassination of Mr. Park in a 1979 coup, when Ms. Park was 27, the country split into those who supported a hard line against North Korea and those who preferred accommodation with the dictatorship in Pyongyang. Overlooked were North Korea's abuses of human rights and disregard for international law. Those who sought better relations with North Korea didn't want to raise the issue of the North Korean leadership's well-documented cruelty to their own people for fear of offending the regime or precipitating a war.

Neither approach has mitigated the suffering in North Korea or the military threat from Pyongyang. The new South Korean president, who appears to be as strong-willed and politcally astute as her father, is equipped and inclined to move relations with North Korea off dead center.

As Lee Sung-Yoon, an assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., argued in an op-ed article in The New York Times Wednesday, it is the calling of affluent, free and independent South Korea to improve conditions for the people of North Korea. President-elect Park, he believes, has the potential to bring South Koreans together around this cause.

Her father started South Korea on its remarkable path to prosperity. Leaders who succeeded him established democracy and free elections, under which Ms. Park became the first person to be elected with the support of a majority of votes and the first woman elected in a male-dominated area of the world. Now, as Prof. Lee argues, she has enormous political capital and should put it to work dismantling the wall between North and South Korea and bringing an end to tyranny and oppression in North Korea.

This needn't be through military threats favored by her conservative predecessors. Instead, she can do it through leadership and diplomacy that is open to talks with the North, but firm on the issue of human rights.

She could begin by standing at the Korean Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, as once President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin Germany in 1987, and demanding that leaders of the nations who helped create this absurd arrangement in the 1950s - Russia, China and the United States primarily - join her and "tear down this wall."

The misnamed military no-man's land may have made sense in Cold War logic. But the cruelty it has caused has survived too long.

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