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.
"...if I take personal considerations into account, I should not have gone to North Korea," she said. But Park said she "had to take into account the need to further embed peace on the Korean peninsula and to-- think about how we could prevent such tragedies from occurring again."
A decade later, Kim Jong Il's son is challenging her in new ways. North Korea's current President Kim Jong Un conducted a nuclear test just two weeks before her inauguration. Tensions between the two countries escalated over the past months as the U.S. and South Korea conducted their annual joint military exercises and North Korea threatened attack. Park said she is not sure whether Kim Jong Un's threats "are to test me or to strengthen internal cohesion or crackdown." She said that she would "may them pay" for even a small scale attack.
Yet Park said that if the need arose she would meet face-to face with Kim Jong Un. She said that she would tell him that "North Korea must change. That is the only way to survival and the only way to development."
But Park said that she doubts that this is the time for that meeting. Her government did extend an offer for talks last month and the North swiftly rejected it as a "cunning ploy." She said that so far the North has not given the "kind of response that we had hoped for." The U.S. - a military ally - made clear that its own offer to negotiate with the North will only happen if it takes actions to halt its nuclear program. Park said it is imperative that the international community stay united and make it clear that "threats and provocations - do not pay."
The reunification of North and South is still, she said, her goal. With that in mind, she emphasized that she is willing to come back to the negotiating table if North Korea takes "the right kind of actions." South Korea's allies are eager to know whether she can break the 60-year cycle of conflict with the North.
There is one way in particular that Park is already very different. She is the first female president in a country that remains male-dominated and the first democratically-elected woman president in East Asia. She told us that position gives her "a heavy sense of responsibility." According to the World Economic Forum, her country ranks 108th in the world for gender equality, ranked between the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
She acknowledged that while her own election was a sign of a "great deal of progress," there "still remains various glass ceilings in our society." She believes that her election will "encourage many women to challenge various areas that still confront various entry barriers."
She dismissed verbal attacks on her gender by North Korea's state-run media which used a traditional Korean phrase to refer to her as a woman who has forgotten her place. Last month, the North said that the "venomous swish of her skirt" is responsible for the buildup in tension between the two countries. She said the personal attack "doesn't really matter"" Instead, she sees it as "a sign that they have very weak rationale... and that they feel very cornered."
Park said that she is "not in politics for the sake of politics... I am not here with some personal agenda." She said that she wants to serve the development of her country.
"I am clear about where I need to go, and I will go there with consistency."