SEOUL (Reuters) - Park Geun-hye will make an emotional return to South Korea’s presidential mansion in February as South Korea’s first female leader, more than three decades after she left it following the assassination of her father.
Park scored a decisive victory in Wednesday’s vote, ensuring that South Korea’s conservatives, who pushed through a free trade agreement with the United States, hold on to the powerful presidency for a second consecutive time after the end of incumbent Lee Myung-bak’s mandatory single term in office.
Despite spending more than 15 years as a national politician and serving as the nation’s first lady at her father’s side, the single, 60-year old woman remains an enigma and her policy stances amount to little more than a series of campaign slogans.
Park’s camp has a “Happiness Promotion Committee” and her campaign was launched as the “National Happiness Campaign”, a slogan she later changed to “A Prepared Woman President”.
She has promised greater “economic democratization” for a country that has achieved astonishing success in rising from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become the world’s 14th largest economy, but where the rewards have been thinly spread.
South Korean economic growth recorded a blistering annual rate of 5.5 percent for decades, but as it has grown richer, that pace has slowed and it will expand by about 2 percent this year.
It is the world’s fastest aging country and has one of the globe’s lowest birth rates thanks, in part, to policies that discourage mothers from staying in work, according to studies by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
As well as economic and demographic challenges, Park will have to deal with an unpredictable and hostile North Korea, led by the untested 29-year old Kim Jong-un, the third of his line to hold power in Pyongyang.
North Korea defied international pressure to push ahead with a rocket launch last week, something that critics say is banned, and may carry out a third nuclear test, according to experts on the isolated state.
Park, who met former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2002 and declared him to be someone “who would keep his word,” has pledged dialogue with the new ruler of the isolated state but also wants the North to give up its nuclear weapons plan as a pre-condition for economic assistance.
She has dubbed her policy “Trustpolitik” in an echo of West Germany’s “Ostpolitik” approach do dealing with the communist former East Germany, although there is little chance South and North Korea will reunify any time soon.
At times, Park and her supporters have bridled at associating her with her father, Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a 1961 coup and ruled for 18 years until he was gunned down by his security chief in 1979.
She served as his First Lady following the 1974 assassination of her mother by a North Korean-backed killer and that legacy has tainted her candidacy for many South Koreans who are still divided over their former ruler’s repression.
Park was baptized as Julianna but later given the Buddhist name of Seondeok, the same as a queen from Korea’s ancient Shilla dynasty. Both Julianna and Seondeok were unmarried, like Park.
Her left-wing opponent, Moon Jae-in, noted that while he languished in jail thanks to the repressive rule of her father, Park lived the life of a “princess” in the presidential palace.
Park has compared herself to tough former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and to current German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician.
Among her many admirers she is known as the “Queen of Elections” for having rescued the conservatives from electoral oblivion in 2004 and having masterminded a comeback win in last April’s parliamentary elections.
Critics have dubbed her the “Notebook Princess” in reference to what they say is her lack of originality and policies.
But that won’t matter to her supporters.
“I feel like I am on cloud nine ... I hope she will become a great leader with a great five years and make Korea’s reunification happen,” said Jung Kwang-yong, head of the fan club called “Group of people who love Park” after the vote.
Merely by overcoming the unpopular legacy of fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak, whose approval ratings have plunged as his presidency has moved into its dying days, she will be lauded by a grateful party once more.
“It will mean the success of conservatives extending their power, which didn’t seem an easy task at certain times. It also means that Park has again come through,” said political analyst Yu Chang-seon.
Additional reporting by Jumin Park and Jack Kim; Editing by Robert Birsel