SEOUL, South Korea – Park Geun-hye’s election as South Korea’s first female president could mean a new drive to start talks with bitter rival North Korea, though it’s unclear how much further she will go than the hard-line incumbent, a member of her own conservative party.
After five years of high tension under unpopular President Lee Myung-bak, Park has vowed to pursue engagement with Pyongyang despite its continuing nuclear program and its widely condemned long-range rocket launch last week. The daughter of late South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, she placed more conditions on resuming negotiations than the liberal opposition candidate she defeated Wednesday, Moon Jae-in.
On Thursday, Park mentioned the North Korean rocket launch during a nationally televised speech.
“The North’s long-range missile launch symbolically showed how grave our security reality is,” Park said following a visit to Seoul’s National Cemetery, where she paid silent tributes to late presidents, including her father.
North Korean state media have repeatedly questioned the sincerity of Park’s North Korea engagement policy, since she and Lee are from the same party.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee’s term. Many voters believe Lee’s policies drove North Korea to renew nuclear and missile tests and to launch two attacks in 2010 that killed 50 Koreans.
North Korea put its first satellite into space with last week’s rocket launch, but Park’s party, the U.S. and others said the mission was a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology. The launch raised North Korea as an issue in the closing days of campaigning, though many voters said they cared more about the economy.
Park (Bahk guhn-hae) has said she is open to dialogue with North Korea, but she has also called on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement. She has also raised the possibility of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but only if it’s “an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”
President Barack Obama offered congratulations to Park on Wednesday. In a statement, he said he looked forward to working with her on a wide range of issues, and he thanked Lee for strengthening U.S-South Korea relations.
Huge crowds lined up in frigid weather throughout the day to choose between Park and Moon, the son of North Korean refugees.
Turnout was higher than it was in either of the last two presidential elections, and some analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the centre, however, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters.
They fondly remember Park Chung-hee, dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.
Much of 60-year-old Park’s public persona is built on her close association with her father’s rule. When she was 22, her mother died in a botched attempt to assassinate her father, and she stood in as first lady for five years until her father’s death.
She has created an image as a selfless daughter of Korea, never married, and a female lawmaker in a male-dominated political world.
After Moon’s concession speech Wednesday night, Park said she would dedicate herself to uniting her people and improving their livelihoods.
“I really thank you. This election is the people’s victory,” Park told a crowd packing a Seoul plaza.
With about 98 per cent of votes counted, Park had won 51.6 per cent to Moon’s 47.9 per cent, according to the state-run National Election Commission. Park is to take office in February when Lee ends his single five-year term.
No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since the ninth century. Park becomes the most powerful figure in a country where many women earn less than men and are trapped in low-paying jobs despite first-class educations.
Her father’s legacy is both an asset and a weak spot. Older South Koreans may revere his austere economic policies and tough line against North Korea, but he’s also remembered with loathing for his treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and summary executions.
Park’s win means that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father’s strong charisma as president and settle the country’s economic and security woes, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
“Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy,” voter Lee Hye-Young said at a polling station at a Seoul elementary school. “Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea.”
Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Sam Kim contributed to this story.