Park Geun Hye first lived in South Korea’s presidential mansion as a child, after her father seized power in a coup. Fifty years later, she returns as the country’s first female leader, vowing to heal the wounds of his legacy.
Park yesterday defeated opposition candidate Moon Jae In, culminating a 14 year-career as a lawmaker, during which she earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for engineering victories as chairwoman of her party. After losing both her parents to assassinations, she has wounds of her own -- in 2006, a man slashed her face with a box cutter at a rally.
As she begins her single five-year term, Park must honor the support of older South Koreans who yearn for a return to the average 10.3 percent annual growth of her father’s last nine years, while persuading younger South Koreans that she’s left the shadow of his dictatorial 18-year regime. Her policy challenges include a newly emboldened North Korea and pressure to tame the business conglomerates known as chaebol that her father helped create.
“She has recanted some of her father’s excesses but we have to see how she treads on particular issues,” said Hahm Chai Bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “She’s a very principled woman and is known for sticking to her position despite all opposition and odds. If she wants something, she’ll go after it.”
Park, 60, became South Korea’s first lady at age 22, after her mother was slain in a 1974 attempt on the life of her father, Park Chung Hee, and temporarily left public life when he was killed in 1979. While per capita income expanded more than six-fold during his rule, he also used torture, censorship and public executions to crack down on dissent.
“I will end the history of division and conflict through reconciliation and fairness,” Park said at a press conference today in Seoul. In September, Park apologized to the families of victims of her father’s regime and said she wanted to heal those scars.
“I understand that the end does not justify the means, and this should be a lasting value for democracy,” Park said then.
During her campaign, Park, who has never been married and has no children, portrayed herself as a daughter of South Korea’s history. She worked to counter claims by her opponent Moon Jae In that her cloistered upbringing in the Blue House compound left her out of touch, an image that earned her the nicknames “Princess Geun Hye” and Snow White.
A campaign advertisement told of how she dedicated the rest of her life to South Korea’s people after she was hospitalized in the 2006 knife attack by a man who said he had been falsely imprisoned for 15 years.
“I don’t have a family to care for or children to pass my wealth to,” Park, the oldest of three children, said in a Dec. 16 debate. “My only family is you -- the people.”
Spending so much of her life steeped in South Korea’s politics may help Park as the first woman leader in a country dominated by men, said Oh Suk Tae, an economist at Standard Chartered Bank Korea.
South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report, and none of South Korea’s top 20 business groups is led by a woman. Just 6.2 percent of executives in companies with more than 1,000 employees are women.
Park has said she would offer incentives to companies to increase the number of women in management roles, and triple child-support subsidies for single-parent homes to 150,000 won ($140) per month. She also wants to create a “Women Talent Academy” to nurture future female leaders in business and government.
“Park is a unique, strong figure,” Oh said. “Her background, family and experience gives her the kind of charisma that no other politicians have and make it impossible to compare her to other women politicians.”
After disappearing from public view following her father’s death and as South Korea moved toward democracy in the late 1980s, Park became a legislator in 1998 and lifted the Grand National Party at the ballot box in the 2000s, when it was in the opposition. She lost the party’s nomination for president to the outgoing leader, Lee Myung Bak, in 2007.
The party, which changed its name to New Frontier last year, retained its majority in the National Assembly in April. The next elections are in 2016.
That support may help Park make good on her promises to expand social welfare and close a widening income gap. She will also seek to revive an economy forecast by the central bank to grow 2.4 percent in 2012, the weakest since 2009.
Park says she also wants to scale back power granted to the chaebol business conglomerates including Samsung Group (102780) that make up more than half the total value of the 1,779 companies on the Korea Stock Exchange. Park’s father provided chaebol with subsidies including unlimited cheap credit, protection from foreign competition and tax breaks.
She said during her campaign that she wants to increase fines for conglomerates that violate fair-trade laws to as much as 10 times the incurred damage and wants to ban new cross- shareholdings. Following through on those policy promises will pose a major challenge, said Standard Chartered Bank’s Oh.
“She will have a hard time fighting the chaebol in the end because they’re the ones growing the economy,” Oh said. “Let’s face it. Korea’s chaebol are beyond anyone’s control.”
Park pledged to seek better ties with North Korea, after Lee abandoned his predecessors’ “Sunshine Policy” of engagement, arguing that it only encouraged the North’s bellicosity. While both candidates said they were willing to hold summit talks with Kim Jong Un, Park was more cautious, emphasizing the importance of national security and “dialogue based on trust.”
“I would be so unhappy if this country ends up giving more to North Koreans only to help them attack us again,” Kim Jong Geun, 65, said after voting for Park in Seoul. “At least Park doesn’t say she will help North Korea on unconditional terms. We’ve got to protect ourselves.”
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