LEE JIN-MAN / AP
Park Geun-hye, center, of the ruling Saenuri Party speaks to the media after she cast her ballot for presidential election at a polling station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012.
SEOUL, South Korea — Conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye was elected South Korea’s first female president Wednesday, a historic win that came despite her past as the daughter of a divisive military strongman.
After five years of high tension under unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak, Park’s win could also mean a new drive to start talks with rival North Korea, which launched a widely condemned long-range rocket last week. Pyongyang’s state media, however, has repeatedly questioned the sincerity of her North Korea policy, which calls for greater engagement than her fellow party member, the hard-line Lee Myung-bak.
Her win is also history-making in Northeast Asia. No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since the ninth century. Park becomes the most powerful figure in a country where women are often paid less than men, are often trapped in low-paying jobs, despite first-class educations, and often struggle to raise families and pursue careers.
Analysts said her victory shows women can thrive in South Korea’s tough political world.
After liberal candidate Moon Jae-in (Moon Jay-in) conceded defeat in a close race, Park said that she would dedicate herself to improving public livelihood and achieving national unity.
“I really thank you. This election is the people’s victory,” Park told a crowd of people packing a Seoul plaza.
With about 92 percent of votes counted, Park had won 51.6 percent to Moon’s 47.9 percent, according to the state-run National Election Commission. Park is to take office in February when Lee ends his single five-year term.
Huge crowds lined up throughout the day, braving frigid weather to choose between Park and Moon, the son of North Korean refugees. Both candidates steered away from Lee’s unpopular policies, including, most strikingly, his hard-line stance on North Korea.
Turnout was the highest in 15 years, and some analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the center, however, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.
Park says she is open to dialogue with North Korea but calls on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement for better relations with Seoul. North Korea described Park’s stance as “deceptive,” saying her North Korea policy is the same as Lee’s.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee’s term. Many voters blame the tension over the last five years for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch last week by Pyongyang that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Park will govern under the shadow of her father, who is both an asset and a soft spot. Many older South Koreans revere his strict economic policies and tough line against North Korea. But he’s also loathed for his odious treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and snap executions.
Park’s win means that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father’s strong charisma as president and settle the country’s economic and security woes, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
“Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy,” 50-year-old housewife Lee Hye-Young said at a polling station at a Seoul elementary school. “Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea.”
North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with last week’s rocket launch, which put a satellite into orbit but was condemned by the United Nations and others as a cover for testing long-range missile technology.
Park has raised the possibility of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but only if it’s “an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”
Article By AP / FOSTER KLUG and HYUNG-JIN KIM