South Korea elects first female president in historic vote
South Korea elected its first female president on Wednesday, handing a slim but historic victory to conservative ruling party 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 per cent of the national vote counted, Park had an insurmountable lead of 51.6 per cent to 48 per cent 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 conservative and liberal 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 she will be restricted by hawkish forces in her New Frontier 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.
He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. Park’s mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
In an effort at reconciliation, Park publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father’s regime during her campaign and apologised to the families of its victims.
“I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics,” she said.
Despite freezing temperatures that hovered around -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit), the election was marked by a high turnout of nearly 76 per cent, compared to 63 per cent in the 2007 presidential poll.
It was a bitter defeat for Moon, 59, the son of North Korean refugees and a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against Park Chung-Hee’s rule.
“I feel so sorry and guilty that I have failed to accomplish my historic mission to open a new era of politics,” Moon told reporters outside his Seoul residence.
“I humbly accept the outcome of the election,” he added
Park, 60, never married and has no children -- a fact that makes her popular with voters tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.
A female president will be a huge change for a country that the World Economic Forum recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality -- one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.
“I can’t even describe how happy I am right now. I feel like crying,” said Cha In-Hong, a 57-year-old office worker.
“Park Geun-Hye has married our nation. Now she will go on her honeymoon to the Blue House to begin governing,” Cha said.
Park’s presidential inauguration will be held on February 25.
Key policies of Park Geun-hye:
Security and foreign policy:
Park says she’s open to dialogue with North Korea’s leadership but says large-scale aid depends on whether Pyongyang pushes ahead with dismantling its nuclear arms program. She says dialogue between the Koreas should resume in order to resolve a nuclear stalemate and to build trust needed to restore civilian exchanges.
Park promises to toughen South Korea’s military to deter North Korean provocations and calls for dealing with Pyongyang in close cooperation with Seoul’s U.S. ally. She demands that Pyongyang apologize for its artillery attack on a South Korean island and the alleged sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, attacks that left 50 South Koreans dead. Pyongyang denies attacking the ship and blames the South Korean military’s live-fire drills as a trigger for its artillery attack.
Park has expressed hope for jointly developing natural resources in North Korea and setting up liaison offices in both Pyongyang and Seoul for dialogue. Park says humanitarian aid for North Korea should continue regardless of political situations.
Economic amd welfare policy:
Park has called for reforming South Korea’s powerful family-run “chaebol” conglomerates but to a degree that regulations do not discourage them from investments. She says her government will toughen penalties for corporate crimes and prohibit new “cross-holding” practices that allow a handful of people to control all subsidiaries under a single conglomerate.
Park says she will nearly triple government spending aimed at supporting small and mid-size companies and promises to increase the country’s budget on research and development to 5 percent of the entire GDP by the end of her single, five-year tenure.
Park promises to increase the nation’s middle class to 70 per cent of the entire population and create massive funds to help more than 3 million South Koreans unable to pay off their debts. Park says she will halve college tuition fees through financial support for students and make sure that a family’s third child can go to college without paying tuition, part of her solution to a low birthrate haunting the country’s future.
Park also says her government will provide each person aged 65 or above with a monthly pension of about $180(HK$1395) and provide 50,000 new jobs for retired people while making medical care free for some of the most serious illnesses such as cancer.
Park says she will allow special prosecutors to operate independently throughout her tenure to crack down on political corruption. She also calls for laws that force corrupt politicians to pay 30 times the amount they illegally acquired and ban them from being elected for two decades.
She also says she will push for laws aimed at compensating victims under past military governments, including the one led by her father, slain dictator Park Chung-hee.
Park opposes the abolishment of capital punishment, saying it helps prevent serious crimes such as sexual assault and murder. No death penalties have been carried out in South Korea since 1998 when liberal President Kim Dae-jung took office.