South Korea's first female president takes hard-line approach with North Korea

In her first U.S. television interview, South Korean president Park Geun-hye told Margaret Brennan her country will not hesitate to strike back against North Korea no matter what size the attack.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is very direct. A trait that she developed as a result of growing up in the political spotlight. A world she described as "extremely complicated, and oftentimes brutal, where your true meaning can often be distorted."

That, Park says, taught her to consistently stick to her principles. "And perhaps that is why certain people feel that I'm a bit cold," she explained. "However, I wish to stress that if I did not hold to my principles, I would not be here today."

Park takes that hard-line approach to her meeting with President Obama on Tuesday. U.S. officials want to know whether she thinks North Korea is ready for talks about its nuclear program. In her interview with CBS News, Park said that she is holding to her principle and will not reward North Korea's bad behavior. In the past, North Korea's threats to attack were met with offers for negotiations and the exchange of aid for an agreement to halt its nuclear development.

Park said that this time she "didn't play their game." She pointed to her decision to withdraw all of South Korean workers from a jointly-administered industrial complex, known as Kaesong, as evidence that she would not back down. She said that the world must make clear to North Korea that "they have no choice but to change." That may be interpreted as a nod toward trying to further isolate North Korea through financial sanctions. She agrees with the U.S. that China can be of "enormous assistance" in influencing North Korea and said Beijing is "actively implementing" sanctions. Park will travel to China in June.

Yet it is clear that President Park is making an effort to reach out to the U.S. during her visit here. She will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. Perhaps more telling is her decision to speak to American journalists. She granted CBS News her first television interview and said that she wished to "introduce myself to Americans at my first visit to the United States as president of the Republic of Korea." She began the conversation in English and expressed her condolences for the recent deaths in the Boston Marathon explosion.

The rise to power of South Korea's first female president is an extraordinary story. Park is the daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee, a controversial leader who ruled South Korea for nearly 20 years before he was killed by one of his own intelligence officers. When she was just 22 years old, Park Geun-Hye took over the duties of first lady for five years after a gunman shot and killed her mother in a botched attack targeting her father. The assassin claimed to be under orders from North Korea.

Despite that dark experience, Park decided to "take up the calling of politics" as she put it, as she watched her country struggle through the 1997 economic crisis. Her father, a strongman who squashed dissent, is largely credited for laying the groundwork for South Korea to now be the 11th largest economy in the world. Watching that crumble is what spurred Park to run for office.

"I couldn't just stand idly by. Because if I did so, I would live to regret it for the rest of my life," she said. Park reveres her parents and cites their "selfless dedication" to the country as an inspiration.

While Park's political pedigree was an asset, she admits that people around her were surprised to see her "take up the calling of politics when I had endured so much tragedy."

Park says that she had to "move beyond" some of that difficult past to take her country in what she says is the "right direction." In 2002, she flew to Pyongyang to meet then-North Korean President Kim Jong Il face-to-face. She acknowledges that the decision to go was difficult. Her own mother died from a bullet shot by someone who was asked to by North Korea.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.