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South Korea: First woman President

Print edition : Jan 11, 2013 T+T-
President-elect Park Geun-hye-LEE JAE-WON /REUTERS

President-elect Park Geun-hye-LEE JAE-WON /REUTERS

IT was one of the most keenly contested elections in recent South Korean history. In the end, the conservative presidential candidate, Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party, defeated her Centre-Left rival Moon Jae-in of the United Democratic Party (DUP) by a slender margin in the December 19 elections. The voter turnout had reached a high of over 75 per cent as against the 63 per cent in the 2007 election.

Park won with more than 51 per cent of the vote. She had appealed to the voters to bring in gender equality by electing the countrys first woman President. South Korea is ranked 108 out of 135 countries by the World Economic Forum in terms of gender equality, one place below the United Arab Emirates.

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the man credited with charting South Koreas rise as an industrial power. The army general was also known for his authoritarian ways. Moon, the opposition candidate, who was a student leader when the senior Park was in power, was incarcerated along with thousands of others for his political activism. According to reports, the younger generation mostly voted for the opposition candidate while the older generation, which feels that it owes a debt of gratitude to the former dictator for his role in transforming the country and his hard-line policies towards the North, voted for his daughter. The election results showed that the country is sharply polarised.

In fact, the legacy of Park was an election issue, with the opposition claiming that the daughter was not much different from the father. The President-elects parents had fallen prey to assassins bullets. Gen. Park died at the hands of one of his top intelligence agents. Park has tried to somewhat distance herself from her fathers legacy by trying to project herself as a self-sacrificing individual whose only interest in life is to serve the people of her country. She had to issue a statement apologising to those who suffered wounds and hardships in the 18 years her father ruled South Korea with an iron hand. If elected, she said, she would be president of the peoples livelihood, who would only think of the people.

Park is not married and has kept a distance from her relatives. In the past two decades, almost all South Korean Presidents, before demitting office, have been embroiled in financial scandals involving mostly their next of kin. The current President, Lee Myung-bak, is no exception and has publicly apologised to the nation. Park had been critical of President Lees foreign as well as economic policies. She had, on the campaign trail, promised to reform the economic system which is dominated by the chaebols (big conglomerates).

Lees hard-line policy towards North Korea is likely to witness a change when Park takes over. She has on several occasions said that she would be willing to resume talks with the North but on certain preconditions. Moon had gone a step further and promised to revive the sunshine policy of having deeper political and economic interaction with the North. North Korea would have preferred to deal with Moon.

Speaking to the media a day after the result was announced, Park criticised North Koreas recent satellite launch and said she would definitely keep her promise to open a new era of the Korean peninsula through strong security and diplomacy on the basis of mutual trust.

John Cherian