Suu Kyi to Meet South Korea's First Female Leader

By Sam Kim 29 January 2013

SEOUL, South Korea — 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 signaled the beginning of Burma’s transition from decades of military rule, is scheduled to meet on Tuesday in Seoul with Park Geun-hye, who takes office next month as South Korea’s first female president.

The meeting between two of the most prominent women in Asia spotlights a tragic coincidence in their family history: Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, was killed by assassins in 1947 while Park’s, 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 Suu Kyi represents to many of the voters who sent her to parliament last year a link with her father, a legendary independence hero. Park, who is 60, enjoys strong support among older South Koreans with memories of the rapid economic growth during her father’s rule.

Suu Kyi’s trajectory, however, has been one of a dissident, while 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 Park’s father and a peaceful transfer of power more than a decade later. Burma, with a reformist government in place but the military still in the background, is nurturing a fragile democracy.

The meeting between Suu Kyi and Park will be the latest in a series of high-profile exchanges between their countries, including reciprocal visits last year by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Burma’s President Thein Sein, both heading delegations keen on bolstering economic cooperation.

Thein Sein also promised Lee in May that his country would no longer purchase arms from North Korea, a foreign policy shift welcomed by Seoul.

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

During her five-day trip, Suu Kyi is scheduled to attend the opening of the Special Olympics, a biennial global event that South Korea is hosting in the alpine town of Pyeongchang for the first time, organizers of her trip say. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate will then receive a human rights award in the city of Gwangju, where a 1980 uprising was crushed with deadly force by the then-military government.