Park moves closer in bid to become South Korea's first female president

December 18, 2012

Park Geun-hye's pitch to lead South Korea is pared down to three words in her campaign advertisements: "Ready female president."

Few in this country need to have the slogan, or the woman, explained to them. Like no other political figure before her, 60-year-old Ms. Park has grown up in front of South Koreans, first as the beautiful and strong daughter of the country's controversial Cold War dictator – thrust into the job of de facto first lady at age 22 when her mother was assassinated by North Korean agents – now as the battle-tested politician who wants to be the first female leader of a country where men still dominate every facet of life.

If opinion polls prove accurate, Ms. Park may get her wish Wednesday when South Koreans choose their next president, though her win may come by the slimmest of margins.

Surveys released after polls closed  Wednesday indicated the race  was too close to call. One exit poll found that Ms. Park had a slight lead over Moon Jae-in. But another survey gave Mr. Moon a slight edge.

While Ms. Park's supporters look at her personal story and see someone prepared by history to lead the country through the twin challenges of a sagging economy and the unpredictable Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang, a growing number of opponents worry that she is fully her father's daughter, with troubling connections to the country's security establishment. She has tacked left on economic issues during the campaign – responding to voter concerns about growing inequality in the country – but is expected to take a tough line toward North Korea if she becomes president.

Should she win, Ms. Park will blaze a new trail for women in a deeply patriarchal country where university-educated women find themselves on the margins of the work force, often forced to decide between professional life and having a family. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Korea ranks 108 among 135 countries in terms of gender inequality, wedged uncomfortably between the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

But gender issues are on the sidelines of this race. Wednesday's election is, instead, something of a referendum on the legacy of Ms. Park's father, Park Chung-hee, who led South Korea from 1961 until his own assassination in 1979 (by the head of his intelligence service). He is simultaneously regarded here as a repressive autocrat who held back the country's political development, and the genius who helped transform South Korea from an economic backwater into one of the most affluent places on Earth.

His daughter is seen as having inherited Park Chung-hee's legendary toughness. Told of her father's death in 1979, she's said to have responded, "Is the border secure?" She has a faint scar on her right cheek from a box-cutter attack she survived while campaigning in 2006 for a seat in the National Assembly.

"When I was young, I had nothing to eat and couldn't go to school. Park Chung-hee gave us our daily meal," said Lee Yeon-hee, a 65-year-old grandmother who attended a campaign rally clutching a homemade collage that included photographs of Ms. Park as a young woman by her father's side, as well as more recent pictures of the would-be president campaigning for office. "Park Geun-hye is his daughter. She has the leadership skills to help South Korea recover from the economic situation we're facing."

Mr. Moon, Ms. Park's main opponent in the race, is a charismatic human-rights lawyer who was part of the 1980s pro-democracy movement that brought an end to the military rule Ms. Park's father embodied. Ms. Park led in eight of the final nine opinion polls, published a week before election day, but her once-comfortable lead over Mr. Moon had shrunk to within the margin of error, in part because of a scandal that has seen South Korean intelligence agents accused of trying to help her campaign.

There's little apparent difference between the candidates' economic platforms. Ms. Park is now offering the same promises to expand health-care coverage and reduce university tuition that Mr. Moon does.

It's on policy toward North Korea that the two candidates differ most sharply.

"We are threatened by North Korea. The lives and property of our people are at risk. The duty of our leaders is to protect the people," Ms. Park told a rally this week in Gunpo, an industrial city south of Seoul, as several thousand heads – many of them covered in grey hair – nodded in agreement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Moon, who served as chief of staff to former president Roh Moo-hyun, is one of the authors of the "Sunshine Policy" of showering North Korea with aid in hopes of gaining influence over its behaviour. It's a policy the outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, who like Ms. Park is a member of the conservative Saenuri party, abandoned after winning election in 2007. "While Lee Myung-bak led, ordinary people died because of North Korean attacks," Mr. Moon, 59, told a lunchtime rally held Monday in the financial district of Seoul.

Mr. Moon has tried hard to link Ms. Park to the unpopular Mr. Lee, arguing that a vote for another Saenuri candidate was a vote for a status quo of economic inequality at home and a more hostile atmosphere on the Korean Peninsula. Mr. Lee is retiring as South Korean presidents are only allowed one five-year term in office.

North Korea has also made its position on the election clear via its official KCNA newswire, warning that the Saenuri party "is a group of heinous confrontation maniacs." and that "it is clear what will happen to the inter-Korean relations if she takes power." Pyongyang's successful launch of a satellite last week, seen by the Washington, Tokyo and Seoul as a camouflaged test of ballistic missile technology, was partly seen as an attempt to influence South Korea's election.

Lost in the shouting over the scandals and the rocket launch is the potentially transformative moment of South Koreans electing a woman to lead them, even if – in the Asian tradition of Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand – it's a woman whose rise is at least partly due to a famous father, husband or brother.

But while younger women are skeptical of Ms. Park's candidacy, older women – those who grew up in an era where women were more openly discriminated against than today – are rallying around her in the last hours. "It will be a symbolic moment [if Ms. Park wins]," said Kim Wonhong, a researcher at the government-run Korean Women's Development Institute. "We can't say she did this only because of her father."

With a file from AP

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