Behind the Story: TIME’s Emily Rauhala Discusses South Korea’s First Female President

TIME Asia associate editor Emily Rauhala discusses the story behind the story of Park Geun-hye's historic win as South Korea's first female President

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Lee Jin-man / AP

A man looks at the wall paintings of South Korea's President-elect Park Geun-hye and the national flag at the Korean Civic Education Institute for Democracy in Seoul on Dec. 20, 2012

On Dec. 19, conservative candidate Park Geun-hye won the race for the South Korean presidency. The 60-year-old career politician will be South Korea’s first female President when she is inaugurated in February. She is also the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, the dictator who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979. TIME Asia associate editor Emily Rauhala wrote about Park and her campaign for a recent magazine cover story. The day after Park’s election victory in a tight contest, TIME spoke to Rauhala to get the story behind the story of Park’s historic return to the Blue House.

What surprised you when you followed Park on the campaign trail?

I saw Park Geun-hye campaigning in enemy territory. I followed her to the city of Kwangju in the country’s southwest, which is part of a region that has historically supported liberal candidates. I had heard that she was very cold, and I knew she had the nickname Ice Queen. So what surprised me was her demeanor with people: she had a strange mix of being very reserved and yet very personable at the same time. She is great about shaking people’s hands, about making eye contact, about politely bowing to the people before her, but — at least in Kwangju — she rarely lingered to ask questions. I got the impression that her image was tightly controlled.

Park’s father General Park Chung-hee, who ran the country for 18 years, developed South Korea’s economy in a way that split the country from east to west. The southeast, where he was from, became the industrial heart of the country, while the people in the west now feel that they have been left behind. Yet she operated well in this hostile environment.

Looking back at her successful campaign, was her father’s legacy an asset to Park Geun-hye’s presidential aspirations?

Her father Park Chung-hee is probably the single most influential and single most divisive figure in contemporary South Korean history. The legacy is both her blessing and her curse. On the plus side, her father is idolized, particularly by some older South Koreans. He is credited with revolutionizing the economy, transforming South Korea from an economic wasteland after the Korean War to the economic powerhouse it is today. The older generation and Park Chung-hee’s fans in general tend to see him as someone who was hardworking and honest. Park Geun-hye gets to bask in that glow.

On the flip side, her father’s rule is still something the country is coming to terms with. He seized power in a military coup and became increasingly authoritarian over the course of his tenure. By the 1970s he started jailing critics and implemented a repressive constitution; a lot of the current crop of liberal and progressive leaders cut their teeth as student leaders and activists fighting his rule. During South Korea’s democracy struggle, public sentiment toward General Park hardened. After her father was killed, Park Geun-hye lived in relative seclusion, staying out of the public eye until she re-entered public life, as a politician, in the wake of the 1998 Asian financial crisis. For some people, she will always be the dictator’s daughter, nothing more, nothing less.

In your story, you recounted how, when she first learned of her father’s assassination, she asked whether the border with North Korea was safe. How will Park deal with the North’s dictator, Kim Jong Un?

This is one of the biggest questions going forward. Park Geun-hye has an incredibly difficult history with North Korea. In 1974, her mother Yuk Young-soo, then the First Lady, was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer. That forced her to become the de facto First Lady at age 22. North Korea has been very critical of her.

Over the coming months we can expect Kim Jong Un to be testing Park Geun-hye and seeing what she is made of. During the campaign, Park promised to return to engagement with Pyongyang, a departure from the hard-line policy of incumbent President Lee Myung-bak — which was seen as a failure by many South Koreans because of two attacks during his tenure: an artillery attack on a South Korean island and the alleged sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, both in 2010. She has said she hopes to build trust with the North. We’ll see if she can do it.

South Koreans have elected their first female President. Can her conservative policies bring about more gender equality in the patriarchal society that is South Korea?

Considering that South Korea is the world’s 11th biggest economy, it’s quite striking that it ranks only 108th in terms of the World Economic Forum’s gender-gap index. There is no shortage of highly educated and accomplished South Korean women, but their rates of labor-force participation and their rates of pay lag behind their peers’ in advanced economies. A South Korean woman can expect to make an average of 39% less than a man in the same job. Women are also overrepresented among contract workers, who often don’t get benefits, work irregular hours and are paid less. There is a lot to do.

Park Geun-hye made women’s rights one of the cornerstones of her campaign. She promised a “women’s revolution” for South Korea, mentioning issues such as child care. The word revolution might be a bit of a stretch: according to her critics, her feminist credentials are somewhat lackluster, and her identity as a woman has never been front and center until this campaign. The question is whether she can make good on the pledge of changing the reality of South Korean women without alienating the more conservative old-school members of her party’s base.

In her victory speech in Seoul, Park promised to revive what is Asia’s fourth largest economy. Will she be able to deliver?

It’s going to be tough. One of the things that surprises outsiders most is the extent North Korea didn’t figure prominently in the election. The campaign was very much more about domestic economic concerns and quality-of-life issues rather than the question of North Korea, which looms large in South Korea but much more so in the international imagination. South Korea is growing. HSBC research predicts 3.8% growth for 2013. While many Western countries could only wish for such figures, for South Korea that represents the end of 50 years of breakneck growth. There is a growing concern about the gap between the rich and the poor, and household debt is at 154% of household income. Ordinary South Koreans increasingly feel that they are scrambling and struggling to make ends meet, let alone to get ahead. The big challenge for Park will be trying to find a balance between her more populist campaign rhetoric — she talked about reining in the corporate conglomerates that dominate the economy, lowering the cost of education, helping women access affordable child care — while maintaining her popularity with the conservative base.

The left-leaning opposition candidate Moon Jae-in conceded defeat after running on a platform of more social spending and a softer stance on North Korea. Does the South Korean left have to rethink itself?

Moon ran a strong campaign. About 51.6% of South Koreans voted for Park, who represented the legacy of state-led development and stability, and just over 48% voted for Moon, with his more progressive, more liberal vision for the country. This has certainly not been a landslide victory for Park or a crushing defeat for the opposition. South Korea is a young democracy but has an incredibly vibrant tradition of activism and protest. You can expect that, over the course of Park’s single five-year term, the liberal camp will continue to push its vision for economic democratization and engagement with the North.