x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

South Korea and Myanmar's women leaders meet

Aung San Suu Kyi, whose 2010 release from house arrest signalled the beginning of Myanmar's transition from military rule, met yesterday in Seoul with Park Geun-hye, who takes office next month as South Korea's first female president.

South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye (right) shakes hands with visiting Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting in Seoul.
South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye (right) shakes hands with visiting Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi during a meeting in Seoul.

SEOUL // Both women lost their fathers to gunshots. Both also overcame that tragedy and rose to political prominence in countries where men dominate decision-making, buoyed in part by the legacies of their fathers.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader whose 2010 release from house arrest signalled the beginning of Myanmar's transition from decades of military rule, met yesterday in Seoul with Park Geun-hye, who takes office next month as South Korea's first female president. Details were not immediately available.

The meeting between two of the most prominent women in Asia spotlights a tragic coincidence in their family history: Ms Suu Kyi's father, the famous Burmese military general Aung San, was killed by assassins in 1947 while Ms Park's, the former Korean president president Park Chung-hee, was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

Both women have benefited from their late fathers' reputations. Even as she has blazed her own political trail, the 67-year-old Ms Suu Kyi represents to many of the voters who sent her to parliament last year a link with her father, a legendary independence hero. Ms Park, who is 60, enjoys strong support among older South Koreans with memories of the rapid economic growth during her father's rule.

Ms Suu Kyi's trajectory, however, has been one of a dissident, while Ms Park has built a political career as a ruling party lawmaker owing much to her father, a dictator who took power in a 1961 coup and ruled South Korea with an iron fist until he was killed 18 years later.

"Park carries family baggage that sets her away from the image of the pro-democracy movement, while Suu Kyi stands on the other side as an icon of democracy," said Lee Shin-hwa, a professor of political studies at Korea University in Seoul.

Democracy has firmly taken root in South Korea since the death of Ms Park's father and a peaceful transfer of power more than a decade later. Myanmar, with a reformist government in place but the military still in the background, is nurturing a fragile democracy.

The meeting between the two women is the latest in a series of high-profile exchanges between their countries, including reciprocal visits last year by Lee Myung-bak, the South Korean president, and Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, both heading delegations keen on bolstering economic cooperation. Mr Sein also promised Mr Lee in May that his country would no longer purchase arms from North Korea, a foreign policy shift welcomed by Seoul.

Mr Lee's visit was the first by a South Korean leader since 1983, when North Korean agents bombed a delegation visiting Myanmar, killing 17 South Koreans and four others but missing the then-president, Chun Doo-hwan.