First female president elected in South Korea

Last modified: 12/20/2012 12:37:17 AM
Park Geun Hye was elected president of South Korea, becoming the first woman to lead Asia’s fourth-biggest economy more than 30 years after her father’s reign as dictator ended with his assassination.

Park, 60, of the ruling New Frontier Party, led main opposition nominee Moon Jae In, 51.7 percent to 47.9 percent with 94.2 percent of the vote counted, the National Election Commission said on its website as of 12:55 a.m. local time. Moon, 59, conceded defeat, saying he was sorry he couldn’t fulfill the expectations of his supporters.

The never-married daughter of the nation’s longest-serving dictator will lead a country with one of the world’s most entrenched gender gaps. She must confront a slowing economy, widening income disparity and re-engagement with North Korea after the totalitarian state’s rocket launch last week.

“Park’s victory is historically symbolic,” said Lee Nae Young, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul. “Voters decided she will offer the most stable leadership to navigate the country through a global recession.”

Park will take office on Feb. 25, when President Lee Myung Bak’s single five-year term ends.

“This is your victory,” she told a crowd in Seoul. “You’ve opened a new era and I will carry your trust deeply in my heart.”

The result means the New Frontier Party retains the presidential Blue House, overcoming widespread dissatisfaction with Lee. The outgoing leader’s popularity plummeted as he failed to live up to pledges to set the economy on a path to the 7 percent annual growth needed to increase per-capita income to $40,000 by 2017.

South Korea’s economy is forecast to grow 2.4 percent this year, the slowest pace since 2009. Park pledged to raise wages, increase welfare spending and rein in the influence of the family-owned conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai known as chaebol.

While pledging to restrict their power, she stopped short of Moon’s recommendations to ban existing and new cross- shareholding to reduce the risk of monopolies.

“Her main focus when she comes in is going to be on the domestic economy and getting it to grow and creating jobs,” said Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Park faced questions of whether as an unmarried, childless woman she could relate to problems of working women. She appealed to the electorate by saying her family was the nation.

South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report, and is 116th in economic participation and opportunity for women.

The election had historical resonance as Moon was imprisoned in 1975 for leading student protests against Park’s father. Park Chung Hee led South Korea for 18 years, spurring growth in steel, shipping and automobile manufacturing by sponsoring the chaebols. He also used torture, censorship and executions to crush dissent, and was assassinated by a bodyguard in 1979.

Park Geun Hye apologized in September to the victims of her father’s rule. She served as first lady for five years starting at 22 when her mother was slain by a North Korean agent attempting to assassinate her father.

On ties with North Korea, both Park and Moon called for resuming dialogue with Kim Jong Un’s regime, which last week ignored international calls to refrain from launching a long- range rocket. The North’s official Korean Central News Agency during the campaign accused Park of “kicking up hysteria for confrontation.”

Park said she was willing to hold summit talks with Kim, while emphasizing the importance of national security and “dialogue based on trust.” Mending fences may offer companies in the South expanded access to the Gaeseong joint industrial zone while bringing aid to Kim, whose economy is one-fortieth the size of his rival.

“There is broad consensus in Korea on the need to engage with North Korea, even when they engage in bad behavior, like rocket launches,” said Peter Beck, Korea representative for the Asia Foundation in Seoul.

— With assistance from Cynthia Kim, Shinhye Kang and Gearoid Reidy in Seoul.

bc-skorea-bloomberg




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