The daughter of a former military ruler took a commanding lead in South Korea’s presidential election yesterday, putting her on track to become the nation’s first female head of state.
A win for 60-year-old conservative Park Geun-hye would see her return to the presidential palace where she served as her father’s first lady in the 1970s, after Park’s mother was assassinated by a North Korean-backed gunman.
With more than 70 percent of the votes counted, Park led with 51.6 percent to 48 percent for her left-wing challenger, human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in.
Her raucous, jubilant supporters braved sub-zero temperatures to chant her name and wave South Korean flags outside her house.
An elated Park reached into the crowd to grasp hands.
Park will take office for a mandatory single, five-year term in February and will face an immediate challenge from a hostile North Korea and have to deal with an economy in which annual growth rates have fallen to about 2 percent from an average of 5.5 percent in the past 50 years.
She is unmarried and has no children, saying that her life will be devoted to her country.
The legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled for 18 years and transformed the country from the ruins of the 1950-1953 Korean War into an industrial power-house still divides Koreans.
For many conservatives, he is South Korea’s greatest president and the election of his daughter would vindicate his rule. His opponents dub him a “dictator” who trampled on human rights and stifled dissent.
“I trust her. She will save our country,” Park Hye-sook, 67, who voted in an affluent Seoul district, said earlier in the day.
“Her father ... rescued the country,” said the housewife and grandmother, who is no relation to the candidate.
For younger people, the main concern is the economy and the creation of well-paid jobs in a country where income inequalities have grown in recent years.
“Now a McDonald’s hamburger is over 5,000 Korean won [US$4.66] so you can’t buy a McDonald’s burger with your hourly pay. Life is hard already for our two-member family, but if there were kids, it would be much tougher,” said Cho Hae-ran, 41, who is married and works at a trading company.
Park Geun-hye has spent 15 years in politics as a leading legislator in the ruling Saenuri Party, although her policies are sketchy.
She has a “Happiness Promotion Committee” and her campaign was launched as a “National Happiness Campaign,” a slogan she has since changed to “A Prepared Woman President.”
She has cited former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a tough proponent of free markets, as her role model as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader.
One of those who voted yesterday was Shin Dong-hyuk, a defector from North Korea who is the only person known to have escaped from a labor camp there.
He Tweeted that he was voting “for the first time in my life,” although he did not say for whom.
Park Geun-hye has said she would negotiate with Kim Jong-un, the youthful leader of North Korea who recently celebrated a year in office, but wants the South’s isolated and impoverished neighbor to give up its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for aid, something Pyongyang has refused to do.