Park Geun-Hye: South Korea's president-elect with history

SEOUL: Park Geun-Hye's historic election victory that will see her installed as South Korea's first woman president of a still male-dominated nation caps a political career founded in privilege and personal tragedy.

One might assume Park's upbringing to be one of privilege, having lived in the presidential Blue House as a child and served there after her mother's murder as first lady to her later-assassinated father.

The Daegu native was just nine years old when her father, Park Chung-Hee, came to power in 1961 in a military coup that set the stage for 18 years of authoritarian rule.

Wednesday's presidential result was, in some ways, a referendum on the legacy of her father whose name still triggers polarised emotions in many South Koreans.

Admired for dragging the war-torn nation out of poverty, but reviled in some quarters for his repression of dissent, his shadow loomed large over Park's election campaign.

Thus, in an effort at reconciliation, Park publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father's regime and apologised to the families of its victims, a move aimed to shed the historic baggage that has plagued her campaign.

"In the shadows of South Korea's rapid growth, there was pain," she said at a news conference held at the Grand National Party's (GNP's) headquarters in Seoul, September 24 earlier this year.

"I deeply apologise to all those who were personally hurt and family members of victims of government abuse."

And like Korea itself, Park was as much the victim of her father's legacy as the beneficiary.

Park was attending graduate school in France in 1974 when she was called back to Seoul after the First Lady Yook Young-soo was killed by a pro-North Korean gunman aiming for her father.

The then 22-year-old took on the duties of her mother and played a sizeable role as the First Lady of Korea, one of which included persuading the 39th US President Jimmy Carter of the importance of the ongoing presence of US troops in Korea when he visited in 1979.

She left the presidential palace after her father was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979 and after a nine-year hiatus finally began her political career in 1998 as an assemblywoman in her home town for the conservative GNP.

The unmarried 60-year-old with no children -- a fact Park used to gain traction with voters tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.

"I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to," she said in a televised address on the last day of campaigning, "You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics."

Park's image of a female politician who promised a strong, maternal style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of global economic troubles is at odds with that pushed by her critics, an aloof aristocrat they call the "Ice Queen".

But even dissenters acknowledge her strengths as a campaigner that helped her party secure strong results in local and national polls between 2004 and 2006, emerging victorious in all 40 re-elections and by-elections, earning her another royal moniker as the "Queen of Elections".

And despite her privileged upbringing, Park has demonstrated a tough streak.

In 2006, an attacker at an election event where she was speaking slashed her face with a utility knife, leaving an 11-centimetre wound that needed 60 stitches.

Park had previously ran in 2008 to become the presidential nominee for GNP but eventually lost to the now outgoing president Lee Myung-bak by a narrow margin. Park had won the "party member's bid", but she lost the "national bid" which is a larger percentage of the total presidential bid.

Now Park will face numerous challenges when she begins her five-year term in February, not least dealing with a North Korea.

Even before Park won her party's presidential nomination in August, the state-run Korean Central News Agency hat attacked her candidacy, warning that "a dictator's bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness".

Park has signalled a break from outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak's hard line on Pyongyang, and even held out the possibility of an eventual summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un.

But she will be restricted by conservative forces in her party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea for its long-range rocket launch last week.

While Park's election as South Korea's first woman president marks a major breakthrough in a male-dominated country, which ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality by the World Economic Forum -- one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.

However, not everyone sees her victory as paving the way for greater women's rights.

Kim Eun-Ju, executive director of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics, believes Park is 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," Kim told AFP.


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