SEOUL – Beset by crisis, scandal and a sluggish economy in the first half of her single five-year term, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating soared in a poll released on Friday after a pact with North Korea brought back the rivals from the brink of conflict.
Park’s rating in a Gallup poll climbed a remarkable 15 percentage points from a week earlier to 49 percent, the highest in nearly a year, after the accord early on Tuesday ended an armed standoff in one of the world’s most dangerous flash points and cleared the ground for further engagement with Pyongyang.
She also scored points for talking tough in the midst of the negotiations, insisting that North Korea had to apologize for land-mine blasts along their border.
“This is a beginning to pierce through clogged-up South-North ties, but we don’t yet have a legacy,” said Choi Jin, the head of the Institute for Presidential Leadership in Seoul, referring to Park’s ambition for a lasting peace, and eventually reunification. “How she can continue to achieve outcomes to live up to this higher expectation is the next challenge.”
Park, the daughter of a former president, came to power in February 2013 and has made improving relations with nuclear-armed and unpredictable North Korea the top aim of her administration. Ties between the rivals have been all but frozen since 2010, when Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean naval ship.
Park has lived under the shadow of the North since her youth. Her mother was shot and killed in 1974 by a North Korean agent attempting to assassinate her father, President Park Chung-hee.
Nevertheless, she has said her ambition is to engage North Korea and eventually bring the rivals close enough to make unification feasible for most on both sides.
Many in South Korea credited Park’s tough stance for bringing Pyongyang to the negotiating table and forcing it to express regret for the mine blasts.
The two sides also agreed to work toward resuming the meetings of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, an emotional issue given the advancing years of surviving family members, and to talk toward improving bilateral relations.
There seems to be no immediate likelihood of a summit between Park and the North’s Kim Jong Un, but the atmosphere between the two sides appears to have significantly improved after the pact.
In a meeting with his top military aides, Kim called the accord a landmark that should pave the way for defused tension and improved ties, the North’s official media said on Friday.
The leaders of the two Koreas have held just two summit meetings since the 1950-53 Korean War, the last in 2007.
Park came to office with a strong electoral mandate but has been bogged down by a weak economy, the sinking of a ferry last year that killed more than 300 people, mostly school students, and graft scandals engulfing a prime minister who later resigned.
South Korea’s one-term presidency means its leaders take on lame-duck status relatively early.
Relations with North Korea, however, are less constrained by domestic politics, which should give Park more room to maneuver for the remainder of her term.
Still, she is not likely to rush into a summit, as her style is cautious and she prefers an incremental approach.
Relations between the Koreas are characteristically volatile and could be set for another downturn if Pyongyang conducts a ballistic missile test on Oct. 10 to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, as it has hinted it will do.
Lee Junhan of Incheon National University said Park could take advantage from the engagement with the North, but in the end, she would be judged by how the economy fared.
“If we have more outcomes in the follow up to the talks, such as family reunions and more working-level meetings, then the ratings can remain high, but if economic recovery is slow, then her ratings will decline again,” he said.