SEOUL (Reuters) - The frontrunner to win South Korea’s presidential election, Park Geun-hye, launched her third bid to become the first woman to lead the country on Tuesday, abandoning earlier tough policies with an inclusive message aimed at winning over younger voters.
The slight and private 60-year old, who once dubbed her policies “Korean Thatcherism” after the free market former British prime minister, pledged at a rally in central Seoul that she would “create a country where no one is left behind”.
Her conservative New Frontier Party holds a primary in August to pick its nominee for the December contest.
Park is the daughter of slain South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, whose legacy still divides this nation of 50 million. He spearheaded the rapid economic growth that helped create an Asian economic powerhouse out of the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War, but had scant regard for democratic principles.
“People say this country and the economy grew, but their lives didn’t get better and their happiness did not grow,” Park, clad in a crisply ironed suit of her party’s red color, told a rally at a glitzy mall in the centre of Seoul.
“The change you have been waiting for, Park Geun-hye will make it come true,” she told an audience of largely older people, her support base.
Since losing her party’s nomination in 2007 to incumbent Lee Myung-bak, whose mandatory single term ends next year, Park has tacked to the centre and promised to implement more welfare policies as well as engage with a hostile North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons programme.
The two Koreas remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a armistice and not a peace treaty. Two million troops are in a tense standoff on either side of the heavily armed border, including more than 20,000 U.S. forces.
North Korea is widely accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel in 2010, killing 46 sailors. Later that year it shelled a South Korean island, killing four people.
The conservatives are in an unlikely race to claim “economic democracy” as the centerpiece of their campaign platform, trying to woo the less ideological and fiscally pragmatic urban voters who will be eyeing the candidates’ visions for social equity.
Park pledged to bring greater fairness to the business environment and said that while she will continue to eliminate pointless regulations, big corporations will be called upon to do more for the greater social good.
“I will create a government that decisively implements the law so that corporations that have big influence can do all they can to meet their social responsibility,” Park said.
Park leads a varied and large field of declared and potential candidates with a more than 38 percent support rate, nearly 20 points ahead of the second place candidate.
Lying second is Ahn Cheol-soo, a software entrepreneur who has not officially announced he is a candidate.
His latest rating stands at 19 percent, about the same as last September when he seized public attention, indicating Park has failed to reach beyond her core conservative base.
“It’s a measured policy platform, one that tries to distance herself from President Lee while trying to pick up traditional liberal voters,” said independent political analyst Yu Chang-seon of Park’s remarks. “The greatest challenge could come from being seen as a person of old politics, if someone like Ahn Cheol-soo becomes her main opponent.”
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. She has had three stints as the leader of the conservatives, winning the accolade “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 Seoul neighborhood, 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.
During her failed bid five years ago, Park said in a somber campaign speech that she had no parents, husband or children, and her country was the only thing she hoped to serve.
This time, she has struck a more positive note.
“I dream of a country where anyone can dream of their own dreams and fully demonstrate their potential and talent,” Park said in a rare comment on her Twitter page on Friday. “On July 10, I wish to make a start on creating such a country.”
Editing by David Chance, Matt Driskill and Ron Popeski