By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's incoming president, Park Geun-hye, is expected to find ways to engage North Korea in a flexible manner reminiscent of then-President Richard Nixon's approach to China in the early 1970s, an eminent U.S. pundit said Thursday.
"She has said she will negotiate with Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, and I believe she will," Donald Gregg, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said in an email interview. "When she does, she will speak as a conservative leader in the same way that Nixon spoke as a conservative when he reached out to China."
Gregg was referring to Nixon's ability to engage communist China in a way that would have been seen as suspect if attempted by liberal contemporaries like presidential rival George McGovern.
Gregg, a former CIA officer who headed the Korea Society from 1993 to 2007, has long called for greater engagement with North Korea.
After several years of sharp military tensions on the peninsula, marked by Pyongyang's repeated provocations and Seoul's tough responses, keen attention is being paid to how South Korea's leader-in-waiting will deal with its communist neighbor.
Park of the conservative ruling party defeated her liberal rival, Moon Jae-in, earlier this week in a tight presidential race. She will become the first female president of South Korea.
Her father, Park Chung-hee, seized power through a 1961 military coup and ruled the nation until he was assassinated by one of his closet aides in 1979. The late Park's presidency coincided with the era of sharp military stand-offs between the two Koreas.
Gregg described Park Geun-hye as a leader looking to the future, not the past.
He recalled meeting with Park after she traveled to Pyongyang in 2002 and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
"She visited Pyongyang and spoke at length with the late Kim Jong-il, with whom she said she felt quite comfortable," Gregg said.
Gregg said he "complimented her for going to North Korea, given the fact that the North Koreans twice tried to kill her father, and did kill her mother in 1974."
"Her reply was impressive: 'We must look to the future with hope, not to the past with bitterness,'" Gregg recounted.
Gregg predicted Park will enjoy good personal chemistry with President Barack Obama.
"Park is a strong believer in the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and I believe that President Obama will find her a good partner with whom to work out an effective policy of re-engagement with North Korea," he stressed. "President Obama already thinks of South Korea as America's closest and most reliable Asian ally."
Gregg said, however, the Obama administration needs to install new officials into the posts handling the North Korea issue.
"The challenge will be to find an American official with fresh ideas and an optimistic view about re-engaging North Korea," he said, recommending Bruce Cumings, a famous historian at the University of Chicago.
Gregg also suggested the Park administration, once it is launched in February, will step up efforts to improve ties with Japan and China, both of which have new leaders.
Along with the key tasks of coordinating a strategy on Pyongyang with the U.S., building strong relationships with the two Northeast Asian powers is seen as a litmus test for Park's leadership in foreign policy.
Soon after her inauguration, Park is expected to seek opportunities for trips to the U.S., China and Japan.
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