December 19, 2012 (TSR and Agencies) – Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former notorious military ruler became Asia’s fourth largest economy, the South Korea’s first female leader Wednesday, saying she would work to heal a divided society. Park replaces her unpopular conservative party colleague, Lee Myung-bak.
With more than 88 percent of votes in the country’s presidential election counted, Park, who ran on a moderate campaign, led with 51.6 percent to 48 percent for her left-wing challenger, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, giving her an unassailable lead that forced Moon to concede.
Park overcame a strong opposition challenge fuelled by resentment of the family record to win the closest presidential race since South Korea embraced democracy in 1987.
Opponent Moon Jae-In, a former presidential aide, conceded defeat after a bitter election battle that had boosted voter turnout to more than three quarters of the electorate, up from less than two thirds five years ago.
Park bears the strict demeanor of a South Korean traditionalist and served in parliament for two decades before she was picked as candidate of the Right-wing New Frontier Party for the top job.
However much of her core support derived from fond memories of her father.
Universally known as “Madame Park”, the 60-year old conservative, will return to the presidential palace in Seoul where she served as her father’s first lady in the 1970s, after her mother Yuk Young-soo was assassinated by a North Korean-backed gunman. Ms Park was nine years old when her father, Park Chung-Hee, came to power through a military coup in 1961 which set the stage for 18 years of authoritarian rule and transformed the country from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War into an industrial power-house.
The general was shot dead by his intelligence chief in 1979, five years after a North Korean assassin had missed his target but killed the dictator’s wife.
Ms Park rushed home from Paris, where she was studying, and has since climbed the political ladder.
Gen Park is a polarising subject in a country where he ruthlessly quashed all dissent in the 1960s and 1970s and many see in Ms Park only the embodiment of her father.
State-run Korean Central News agency has said “a dictator’s bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness”.
While this has cast a fairly dark cloud over a lot of Ms Park’s electoral campaign, the presence of her father’s legacy has, at times, proved an asset, as many older South Koreans hope she will evoke the strong charisma of her father and thus settle the country’s economic and security woes.
News agency Yonhap said the result could have profound impacts on the country’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to its Communist neighbor, North Korea. South Korea as become more left and wish more dialogue than force with its neighbor.
As a Western ally, Seoul also faces the separate challenge of an expansionist China seeking to assert its role in Asia.
Park who has a degree in engineering from Sogang University in Seoul has been described by voters as “good-hearted, calm and trustworthy” with the power to “save our country”.
She also acknowledged the excesses of her father’s regime during her campaign and apologised to the families of its victims.
MILESTONE FOR SOUTH KOREAN WOMEN’S RIGHTS
Citing Queen Elizabeth I, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel amongst her role models, her presidency shatters the bias surrounding women’s rights in a country that came 108th out of 135 countries in a survey on gender equality; one place below the United Arab Emirates.
No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since the ninth century. Ms Park becomes the most powerful figure in a country where women continue to face widespread sexism, are often paid less than men, are often trapped in low-paying jobs, huge income gaps and few opportunities to climb business or political ladders, and often struggle to raise families and pursue careers. Analysts said her victory shows women can thrive in a tough political world.
She changed her campaign slogan from “National Happiness Campaign” to “A Prepared Woman President”, however this maternal political image is at odds with that pushed by her critics of an aloof aristocrat they call the ‘ice queen’ with a political career founded in privilege. She changed to a moderate tone to reassure voters that democratic values were the pre-eminent principle of her politics.
She has certainly shown a tough streak in the past, demonstrated particularly in 2006 when a convicted criminal slashed her face as she was shaking hands with voters, opening a gash that needed 60 stitches during surgery.
In a country where corruption and dominance of massive conglomerations has dominated political fortunes, Ms Park promised efforts to distribute wealth more equally.
“I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics,” she said.
She has never married and has no children, generating an image of selfless daughter of Korea which is hugely attractive to many voters who are tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.
“I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to. You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics,” she said.
Kim Eun-Ju, executive director of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics supports this image of the new President, seeing Park as a female political leader “only in biological terms”. “For the past 15 years, Park has shown little visible effort to help women in politics or anywhere else as a policymaker,” she said.