In December last year, a majority (51.6 percent) of South Korean voters elected the first female president, South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye of the New Frontier Party. She is to be inaugurated tomorrow.
South Korea is a male-dominated society. For Park to defeat Moon Jae-in from the liberal camp and win South Korea’s top leadership post was not easy, because she had to crack the citadel of masculinity in a culture deep-rooted in male chauvinism.
A male professor at a leading university said on a TV program: “Women in Korean society attain the phenomenon of womanhood by getting married, giving birth and raising children. Park Geun-hye [who has never married or given birth] falls short of those conditions. Only her reproductive organs makes her a woman.”
Shocking as his remarks are, that is probably typical of South Korean men.
Park did not campaign on her gender, nor on the promotion of women’s rights and empowerment. Her one great advantage was her father, the late South Korean president Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist in the 1960s and 1970s, and produced an economic miracle.
Many South Koreans in their 50s or older give him credit for eradicating South Korea’s abject poverty in the wake of the Korean War, laying the ground for South Korea’s economic take-off, the growth of an affluent middle class and South Korea’s rise to an industrialized leader in world trade. Those South Koreans who have a favorable view of Park Chung-hee’s legacy naturally supported his daughter’s election.
However, her father’s memory was a mixed blessing to Park Geun-hye. A large number of South Koreans, including human rights lawyer and presidential candidate Moon, suffered badly under his repression and see her as a vestige of the Park Chung-hee era. Progressive opponents were motivated and mobilized to stop her candidacy. Young South Koreans, and residents of Seoul and southwestern Cholla region voted overwhelmingly for Moon.
To some degree, Park Geun-hye seems to fit into an Asian tradition of the daughters, wives or sisters of powerful men becoming political leaders after the men are assassinated, forced from office or pass away. On the other hand, she is different and distinguishes herself by having a formidable political career in her own right, and not being merely a successor to her father’s power.
She has been noted for her political sophistication and leadership skills, twice rescued her party from the brink of collapse and built her own base of voter support among conservatives and moderates, thereby achieving a “grand coalition of conservatives” in the last presidential election — a first since South Korea democratized in 1987.
Park Geun-hye will preside over a country that is economically, politically and socially polarized. She is aware of the challenges her presidency has to deal with and has called for a national reconciliation.
She has promised to deliberate on the various opinions and suggestions of her supporters and opponents, and appoint talented people from all walks of life to her administration “regardless of their regional background, gender and generation.”
She pledges to strive for national reconciliation, harmony and a just society. While the mission is not necessarily impossible, it will certainly be difficult.
While Park Geun-hye has become a role model for hundreds of millions of women across East Asia, advocates of women’s rights in South Korea are demanding their new president advance South Korean women’s rights — an issue to which she has yet to devote her attention.