Park Geun-hye

Will a president's daughter be South Korea's next leader?

Richard Halloran says Park Geun-hye, if elected, could favour moderation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 3:59am

In the elections across Asia from Japan to Sri Lanka this year, perhaps the most intriguing candidate is Park Geun-hye, who is seeking to be the first woman elected president of South Korea.

Park, 60, is part of an elite sisterhood of Asian women who got their start in politics as the daughter or widow of well-known men. Most of them were educated in Western universities. Among them: the late Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Sonia Gandhi in India; Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed in Bangladesh; and, most likely the best known, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. In Indonesia is Megawati Sukarnoputri; the late Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the Philippines; and Makiko Tanaka in Japan.

A rare exception is Tsai Ing-wen, a scholar and government official who ran for the presidency of Taiwan in January but was defeated by the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai appears to have had no prominent family connections.

In Seoul, Park is the daughter of the late president Park Chung-hee, which has been at once a plus and a minus in her political career. The former president is widely credited for having driven South Korea onto the path of economic progress. At the same time, he is reviled for his sometimes brutal political repression.

As the candidate for the New Frontier Party, Park's main opponent is Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party. Most Korean observers say the race is too close to call, although Moon may have some advantage in a society dominated by men. The vote takes place on December 19.

Park got an early start in public diplomacy as a young woman in 1974 after her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed by an assassin as she listened to president Park give an independence day address. Ms Park soon became her father's official hostess and, by all accounts, conducted herself with the same grace as her mother.

Five years later, president Park was murdered by his security chief. Ms Park withdrew from the public eye and did not reappear until 1998 when she was elected to the National Assembly. She has been re-elected several times, each time with a larger share of the vote. She has also taken on greater responsibility for party leadership and is credited with having guided the party to success in recent elections.

If she is elected, Park asserted in a recent speech, she would emphasise efforts to reunify Korea. She proposed an "alignment policy" that would fall between former president Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" and the hardline posture of the current president, Lee Myung-bak.

"If it helps to foster South-North relations, I will also meet the North Korean leader," she said. In an interview in 1975, her father said he would be willing to meet the then North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, provided something tangible would result. They never met.

Park took a somewhat harder line toward Japan, with which Seoul has been feuding over an island chain, known by South Korea as the Dokdos and by Japan as the Takeshimas. She said she would be firm in defending the country's "core national interests".

She sought to position South Korea between the US and China, saying Seoul's relations with Washington would be "expanded into a comprehensive, strategic alliance". At the same time, she asserted: "Korea's ties with China will be upgraded commensurate with our strategic co-operative partnership."

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington