SEOUL (Reuters) - The daughter of slain South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee is to launch a bid to become the first woman to lead this Asian economic powerhouse on July 10 and is likely to pledge to broaden welfare and offer to mend relations with a bellicose North Korea.
Park Geun-hye, a slight and elegant 60 year old, has a double digit lead over most of her potential opponents for the vote which is due in December. She will be the clear front-runner in the primary of the ruling conservative New Frontier Party.
For many older voters her name is enough, a reminder of the rapid economic growth that her father fostered as South Korea vaulted from poverty to developed nation status in a generation.
But to ensure a win in December’s poll, she desperately needs to connect with younger, urban voters who fret over job security and welfare and for whom Park Chung-hee is a distant figure.
When Park tried and failed to win the conservative nomination in 2007, she described her policies as “Korean Thatcherism” after the anti-union, free-market British premier, Margaret Thatcher.
“She continues to deliberate on what her message will be,” spokesman Lee Sang-il said as he announced that Park would announce her bid in a public square in Seoul.
Now Park wants to “ease people’s anxiety”, create jobs and improve welfare as she seeks to succeed fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak, whose mandatory single terms expires in early 2013.
“Five years ago, Park Geun-hye was focused on cutting taxes and reducing regulation but now she has shifted to welfare,” said Cho Sung-dai a professor at Hanshin University.
“But under the current administration, social polarization has increased so Park has modified her stance.”
Park has also modified incumbent Lee’s hardline policy on North Korea, with which the South remains technically at war after an armistice ended the Korean War in 1953, and has pledged a dialogue with Pyongyang if it abandons its hostile stance and nuclear weapons.
North Korea is widely blamed for sinking a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, killing 46 sailors. Later that year it shelled a South Korean island killing four people.
“Whoever becomes president, whether it is Park Geun-hye or someone from the opposition, they will be taking a much more balanced position (on North Korea),” said Moon Chung-in, a Yonsei University professor who was a policy adviser to Lee’s predecessors who pursued engagement with the North.
Park emerged from the political wilderness in her mid-40s to help “save” her country at the height of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and has had three stints as the leader of the conservatives, winning the accolade the “Queen of Elections” for staging a series of comebacks for the party.
Despite decades in public life, Park is an intensely private person. She has never married and lives in a grey two-storey house in a quiet neighborhood in Seoul, a residence she says has shown signs of age.
“We had water leaking in the house which caused quite a scene,” Park said in a Twitter post last year during heavy rainfall.
Park, who was 11 when her father first became president, spent five years as South Korea’s first lady after her mother was killed by a North Korean-backed assassin in 1974. She only moved out of the Blue House, the imposing presidential palace, in 1979 after her father was shot dead by his disgruntled spy chief at a drunken private dinner.
While current polls point to a coronation procession for Park, her biggest challenge could come from the popular software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo who has hinted he may run.
Ahn, a dean of Seoul National University graduate school for scientific innovation, appeals to young, educated and urban professional voters outside Park’s core conservative base.
In April’s parliamentary elections, Park and the New Frontier Party struggled to win votes in Seoul, and the percentage of undecided voters stands at between 10 and 30 percent, according to most polls.
“The capital region has a strong centrist disposition with a large block of swing voters,” said Jeong Han-wool, executive director at the East Asia Institute think tank in Seoul.
Inside the squabbling New Frontier Party, rivals say Park is shallow, with her sole qualification being her name.
She has been dubbed the “notebook princess” by her opponents for relying on prepared scripts.
“Park Geun-hye may be called the ‘Queen of Elections’... but if there’s a serious contest between a king and a queen, it won’t always be the queen who wins all the time,” said Chung Mong-joon, a conservative rival for the presidency.
“I thought I knew Park Geun-hye well because I went to the countryside and did karaoke with her but now I don’t know who she is as a politician,” Chung said in June.
Park has hit back at her opponents, dubbing her stance “principled” and saying she learnt her values from her father, whose legacy of economic growth and political repression still divides Koreans.
Many still attack her for her privileged upbringing and what they say is a less than complete apology for her father’s oppression.
“When I was living in poverty she was living the life of a princess in the Blue House. When I was fighting against dictatorship, she was at the heart of it,” left-wing presidential hopeful Moon Jae-in said when he declared his presidential bid last month.
Editing by David Chance and Robert Birsel