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What Makes a Lady 'Iron'?

6 things to know about Park Geun-hye, South Korea's tough first female president.


Park Geun-hye at her inauguration ceremony(AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

Park Geun-hye, South Korea's recently elected president, is not unlike Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died last month. Park is a rare female leader in a male-dominated political system. Like Thatcher, she's a conservative who has gained a reputation for toughness. So much so, that many have taken to describing her as "the Iron Lady."

On Tuesday, she arrived in Washington for talks with President Obama. Since Park's election, North Korea has ratcheted up provocations toward its southern neighbor, with missile launches and nuclear tests. The Washington Post characterizes Park's first months as president as "something of a baptism of fire." When asked by CBS News if she would pursue military action against the North if attacked, she responded, "We will make them pay."


Tough words. Here's what else makes this president deserving of the label "Iron Lady."

She has a superhero’s origin story

Born in a South Korean ruling family, Park saw both her parents assassinated within five years of one another.

In 1979, the director of the South Korean central intelligence agency killed her father, a military dictator who ran the country for 18 years. Five years earlier, a North Korean assassin killed her mother in the National Theater of Korea (the gunner was aiming for her father).


After her mother’s death, Park assumed the role of first lady until her father's death. According to Reuters, she has written about the violence that she might “choose death over a life like this again.”

She’s pragmatic

According to a Time profile of Park, when her father was killed, the first thing she reportedly said was, “Is the border secure?”

Her detractors call her “the Ice Queen.”

She’s tough

During a 2006 run for president, Park survived a knife attack to the face. The assailant left a four-inch gash that resulted in 60 stitches. She returned to campaigning 10 days later, and used the incident for fodder for a TV ad. "Since then I have decided to dedicate the rest of my life tending to your wounds,” she said in the voice-over.


She’s a female leader in a highly male-dominated culture

Park became South Korea’s first female president this February (and the first female president in all of East Asia), beating out Moon Jae-in, a male left-leaning human-rights lawyer. This is no small feat in a country that is male-dominated, ranking 108th in the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap rankings (right after the United Arab Emirates).

From the February Time profile:

    Park's campaign itself takes place in a man's world. A day on the election trail with her is a whirl of middle-aged men, punctuated by the occasional female journalist or staffer. Her supporters, particularly older men, see her as a "dutiful" daughter (the female counterpart of the filial son). The media like to mention that she is single and childless. When analysts say she is "strong" or "tough," they invariably add "for a woman." Park isn't averse to a little gender stereotyping herself, promising "motherly, female leadership" should she be elected.

She won her party’s nomination with 84 percent of the vote.

Queen Elizabeth I is her role model

Like Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII who defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, Park is unmarried and without children.

"[Elizabeth] saved her country from the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into a nation where the sun never set,” The New York Times reported Park as saying. “Because she knew misfortune, she knew how to care for others.”

She doesn’t mince words with North Korea

While the North Korean government has disparaged her—characterizing her as a  “venomous swish of skirt," a Korean phrase used to describe a women acting out of character—the South Korean government has threatened to wipe the North “off the face of the Earth,” if sufficiently provoked.

"I will not tolerate any action that threatens the lives of our people and the security of our nation," Park said during her inauguration.

But she's hopeful for Korean reunification

"We must be reunified; we must work toward a world where the North Korean people can enjoy the freedom, the happiness that is enjoyed by their South Korean brethrens," she told CBS News.

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