Park Geun-hye

Park becomes South Korea's first woman president

Conservative daughter of the country’s former dictator sweeps to ‘symbolic’ victory over her liberal rival and vows to be ‘leader of promise’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2012, 9:30am

Conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea's former dictator, became the country's first woman president last night.

Her liberal rival Moon Jae-in conceded defeat with Park ahead by 51.7 per cent to 47.9 per cent after 94.2 per cent of the vote had been counted.

Park, 60, will take office on February 25, when President Lee Myung-bak's single five-year term ends.

She pledged to be a "president of promise" and told supporters in Seoul: "This is your victory. You've opened a new era and I will carry your trust deeply in my heart."

Moon, 59, said he was sorry he could not fulfil the expectations of his supporters. Lee Nae-young, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul, said: "Park's victory is historically symbolic. Voters decided she will offer the most stable leadership to navigate the country through a global recession, and mounting internal and external uncertainties, especially in foreign affairs and national security."

Turnout was the highest in 15 years - about 75 per cent compared to 63 per cent in the 2007 presidential poll. Analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters.

But despite moving to the centre, 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 dictator father, the late president Park Chung-hee.

Her father remains one of modern Korea's most polarising figures, admired for dragging the country out of poverty but 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.

Park says she is open to dialogue with North Korea, but is calling on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement to improve relations.

She will also have to deal with a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world's most rapidly ageing societies.

Park supporters gathered outside her Seoul residence, cheering and waving the national flag.

After locking in the support of their respective conservative and liberal bases, the two candidates had put much campaign effort into wooing crucial centrist voters, resulting in policy overlap.

Both talked of "economic democratisation" - a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth - and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters