SEOUL, Dec 19 – South Korea elected its first woman president on Wednesday, with voters handing a slim but historic victory to conservative candidate Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the country’s former military ruler.
As leader of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, Park, 60, will face numerous challenges, handling a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.
With more than 90 percent of the national vote counted, Park from the ruling New Frontier Party had an insurmountable lead of 51.6 percent to 48 percent over her liberal rival, Moon Jae-In of the main opposition party.
The election was largely fought on domestic economic issues, with both candidates offering similar policies as they went in search of centrist voters beyond their traditional bases.
Park had pushed a message of “economic democratisation” – a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities thrown up by rapid economic development – and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.
However she had been far more cautious than Moon about the need to rein in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol”, that dominate the national economy.
“This election was a victory for all of you, the people,” Park told cheering, flag-waving supporters at an open-air victory celebration in central Seoul.
“It is a victory from the heart of the people hoping to revive the economy,” she added.
On North Korea, Park has promised a dual policy of greater engagement and “robust deterrence”, and held out the prospect of a summit with the North’s young leader Kim Jong-Un, who came to power a year ago.
She also signalled a willingness to resume the humanitarian aid to Pyongyang suspended by current President Lee Myung-Bak.
But analysts say she will be restricted by hawkish forces in her ruling party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea for its long-range rocket launch last week.
To some extent Wednesday’s election was seen as a referendum on the legacy of Park’s father, Park Chung-Hee.
More than three decades after he was assassinated, Park remains one of modern Korea’s most polarising figures – admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his ruthless suppression of dissent during 18 years of military rule.