South Korea Elects First Female President
South Korea’s Presidential election ended in a victory for the conservative party, but ended up being historic for other reasons:
Park Geun-hye is headed back to the Blue House. On Wednesday, South Koreans chose the daughter of South Korea’s Cold War strongman Park Chung-hee as the country’s next President. Park, the 60-year-old leader of the conservative Saenuri Party, defeated 59-year-old liberal challenger Moon Jae-in — once jailed for opposing her father’s rule — by a margin of about 3.5%. She will now move back to the presidential residence where she lived as a child and where she served as de facto First Lady after her mother’s death. Park has spent much of her life in her father’s shadow. Now, as the country’s first female President, she will need to chart her own course.
Moving forward won’t be easy. When outsiders think of Korea, they think of a divided peninsula, with the 38th parallel separating the totalitarian North from the democratic South. But South Korea itself is split. This year’s closely fought presidential race showed that South Koreans disagree not only about the future but also about the past. As the daughter of the most influential leader in her country’s modern history, Park Geun-hye is at the heart of that debate.
To her supporters, Park Geun-hye is a symbol of stability. After seizing power in a 1961 military coup, her father, General Park Chung-hee, made economic growth a national priority, picking promising industries and using them to export the country out of poverty. He put development first, urging his countrymen to “fight while working.” That relentless work ethic helped the country become a global economic player.
When First Lady Yuk Young-soo was killed in a botched attack on Park Sr. in 1974, Park Geun-hye stepped in as the acting First Lady. Her service to her grieving father (himself assassinated five years later) won her a reputation for steadfastness, poise and competence. Yun Byung-se, a career diplomat who served as an adviser to Park Geun-hye’s campaign, describes those years as formative: “Her involvement in politics and policy issues started very early.”
But Park’s political pedigree also works against her. While Park Sr. is worshipped by many South Koreans, especially older folk, for transforming the country’s economy, he is despised by many others. Park Chung-hee once wrote that, “In human life, economics precedes politics or culture.” But fulfilling his economic ambitions caused him to tighten his grip on power, not loosen it. He jailed and tortured dissidents, dissolved the legislature and rewrote the constitution to buttress his own position. To veterans of South Korea’s democracy struggle, daughter Park is a symbol of the country’s authoritarian past. For years, Park refused to criticize her father. This fall she officially apologized for the excesses of his era, but without condemning him outright. “I know more than anyone the divergent views about my father,” Park told TIME in written responses to questions. “I want to be judged on my own merits.”
Given that South Korea is still a very male dominated society, this is quite significant. It will be interesting to see how Park’s election will impact South Korean society as a whole.