South Koreans have for the first time elected a woman as their president. The country’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, will have her job cut out when she takes office in February with the economy slowing; her father’s autocratic rule still an issue for many and North Korea as unpredictable as ever.
Park, 60, won Wednesday’s hotly contested election comfortably. She replaces fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak after his mandatory single, five-year term ended. The slightly built and elegant Park grew up in Seoul’s presidential palace during the 18-year rule of her father, Park Chung-hee, who took power in a military coup in 1961.
Park is likely to face protests by South Korea’s vocal left, angry over the rise to power of the daughter of a man they believe was a repressive “dictator”. “This will be a tremendous burden on her ability to govern,” said political commentator Yu Chang-seon of Park’s heritage. “It effectively means that she could be in direct conflict with half of society … The first six months will be key.” On the economy, which dominated the election campaign, Park has promised more social welfare but given few specifics. Korea has achieved astonishing success in rising from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become the world’s 14th largest economy, but rewards have been thinly spread.
Economic growth was 5.5 per cent for decades, driven by some of the world’s biggest companies, such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and Hyundai Motor Co. That pace has slowed and this year the economy will expand by about 2 per cent. The hundreds of thousands of graduates that South Korean universities churn out each year complain they have trouble finding decent jobs and income differentials have widened sharply. Park’s party says it will not spend more money to boost the economy.
Park has at times invoked her father’s legacy of rapid growth that propelled South Korea into the league of industrialized nations. At other times, she has apologized for his suppression of protests and the execution of people suspected of sympathizing with the North, which is still technically at war with the South after an armistice ended the Korean War.