South Korea Elects First Female President: Park Geun-hye

On Wednesday, South Koreans chose the daughter of South Korea’s Cold War strongman Park Chung-hee as the country’s first female President

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JUNG YEON-JE / AFP / Getty Images

South Korea's president-elect Park Geun-Hye waves to supporters as she arrives to deliver a victory speech on a stage in the centre of Seoul, Dec. 19, 2012.

Park Geun-hye is headed back to the Blue House. On Wednesday, South Koreans chose the daughter of South Korea’s Cold War strongman Park Chung-hee as the country’s next President. Park, the 60-year-old leader of the conservative Saenuri Party, defeated 59-year-old liberal challenger Moon Jae-in — once jailed for opposing her father’s rule — by a margin of about 3.5%.  She will now move back to the presidential residence where she lived as a child and where she served as de facto First Lady after her mother’s death. Park has spent much of her life in her father’s shadow. Now, as the country’s first female President, she will need to chart her own course.

Moving forward won’t be easy. When outsiders think of Korea, they think of a divided peninsula, with the 38th parallel separating the totalitarian North from the democratic South. But South Korea itself is split. This year’s closely fought presidential race showed that South Koreans disagree not only about the future but also about the past. As the daughter of the most influential leader in her country’s modern history, Park Geun-hye is at the heart of that debate.

(MORE: History’s Child: Park Geun-Hye Aims to Make History as South Korea’s First Female President)

To her supporters, Park Geun-hye is a symbol of stability. After seizing power in a 1961 military coup, her father, General Park Chung-hee, made economic growth a national priority, picking promising industries and using them to export the country out of poverty. He put development first, urging his countrymen to “fight while working.” That relentless work ethic helped the country become a global economic player.

When First Lady Yuk Young-soo was killed in a botched attack on Park Sr. in 1974, Park Geun-hye stepped in as the acting First Lady. Her service to her grieving father (himself assassinated five years later) won her a reputation for steadfastness, poise and competence. Yun Byung-se, a career diplomat who served as an adviser to Park Geun-hye’s campaign, describes those years as formative: “Her involvement in politics and policy issues started very early.”

But Park’s political pedigree also works against her. While Park Sr. is worshipped by many South Koreans, especially older folk, for transforming the country’s economy, he is despised by many others. Park Chung-hee once wrote that, “In human life, economics precedes politics or culture.” But fulfilling his economic ambitions caused him to tighten his grip on power, not loosen it. He jailed and tortured dissidents, dissolved the legislature and rewrote the constitution to buttress his own position. To veterans of South Korea’s democracy struggle, daughter Park is a symbol of the country’s authoritarian past. For years, Park refused to criticize her father. This fall she officially apologized for the excesses of his era, but without condemning him outright. “I know more than anyone the divergent views about my father,” Park told TIME in written responses to questions. “I want to be judged on my own merits.”

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To win over her critics, Park Geun-hye will need to make good on her campaign promises. The race that ended Wednesday saw Park shift the ruling Saenuri Party away from the conservative policies of unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak and toward the political center. Though South Korea is predicted by HSBC research to grow at a rate of 3.8% in 2013, many of its citizens are worried about the future. The gap between rich and poor is widening, household debt is high, and a growing number of people believe the economic deck is stacked against them. Both Moon and Park pledged to reform the economy, notably by reigning in the conglomerates, or chaebol, that have dominated the economy since the Park Chung-hee era. Any effort to do so, however, will likely encounter strong opposition from conservative voters, which puts Park in a tough spot.

Another issue is gender equality. South Korea may have elected its first female leader, but it is a heavily male-dominated nation, ranking a miserable 108th in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 gender-gap rankings — sandwiched between the United Arab Emirates at 107 and Kuwait at 109. Women earn on average 39% less than men and are overrepresented among contract laborers who often toil for low pay with no benefits. In the run-up to the election, Park promised a “women’s revolution” if she were elected and added issues like child care to her platform — but while her family name means that the Establishment will listen to her on issues of women’s rights, she may need to temper her message in order to retain its support. Her critics certainly aren’t sold on her commitment to gender equity, noting that Park herself played to stereotypes during the campaign, promising “motherly” female leadership should she win.

Perhaps she should just drop the motherly part and concentrate on delivering good leadership, period. That means setting a clear vision for her administration and explaining how she’s going to realize it — preferably without the aid of the cue cards and prompters she typically uses. Park’s reliance on set-piece speeches has already earned her the nickname the Notebook Princess. As of Wednesday, she must start writing her own script.

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