SEOUL » Ruling-party candidate Park Geun-hye was elected South Korean president today, becoming the country’s first female leader despite the incumbent’s unpopularity and her own past as the daughter of a divisive dictator. The victory sets up the possibility of greater engagement with rival North Korea, despite a controversial rocket launch by Pyongyang last week.
After liberal candidate Moon Jae-in conceded victory in a close race, Park said she will become “a president of promise.”
Huge crowds lined up throughout the day, braving frigid weather to choose between Park and Moon, the son of North Korean refugees. Both candidates steered away from outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s (lee myuhng bahk) policies, including, most strikingly, his hard-line stance on North Korea.
Turnout was the highest in 15 years, and some analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the center, however, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her dictator father, the late President Park Chung-hee.
Park will become the first woman to lead a country that still struggles with widespread sexism, and analysts said her victory would partly erase the bias that women can’t thrive in South Korea’s tough political world.
Park says she is open to dialogue with North Korea but calls on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement for better relations with Seoul.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee’s term. Many voters blame the tension over the last five years for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch by Pyongyang that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.