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South Korea's 'Iron Lady' eyes presidency

Text by Guillaume GUGUEN

Latest update : 2012-07-14

Park Geun-hye, the daughter of deceased dictator Park Chung-hee, is running to be South Korea's next president. takes a closer look at a scrappy and controversial politician who could became her country’s first female head of state.

The woman South Koreans call “the election queen” could be on the verge of winning the most prestigious political race of all in just a few months.

On July 10, Park Geun-hye officially declared her presidential candidacy for a vote set to take place in South Korea at the end of the year. The 60-year-old chairwoman of the conservative Saenuri Party (also known as the New Frontier Party) -- and daughter of former president Park Chung-hee -- is hoping to take over from the unpopular current president, Lee Myung-bak. According to the Constitution, Myung-bak is not allowed to pursue a second five-year term.

Park will have to receive the nomination of her largely supportive party before jumping into the race, though it is a procedural formality -- with 40% favourability ratings, she is currently considered the frontrunner.

A woman among men

If Park wins, she will become the first female president in a country still deeply entrenched in patriarchal values and gender inequalities.

Beyond any symbolism, a victory for the leader of the South Korean right would also be the crowning moment of a life almost entirely devoted to politics. A single woman whose private life has remained shrouded in secrecy, Park is nevertheless a familiar face in South Korea. “In countries like South Korea, if you don’t have a well-known family name, you don’t go into politics,” explained historian Ilios Yannakakis. “You need to be recognisable in the political world. She’s the daughter of somebody important.”

A dictator’s daughter

Park’s name is indeed inextricably linked to that her father, who ruled Korea with an iron fist from 1962 to 1979. “Her father’s legacy, which remains very controversial, is at the origin of her popularity, but also the thing that limits it,” Lee Nae-young, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, told Agence France Presse.

After seizing power in a military coup, Park Chung-hee made a name for himself in South Korean history with unapologetic tactics, including cracking down on the press and throwing political opponents in jail. That heavy baggage has Park Geun-hye’s mostly urban, progressive detractors worried that her presidency would be similarly authoritarian. “She should not be held responsible for the sins of her father,” Yannakakis said. “It would be a mistake to assume that she is just a sequel to her father.”

Champion of the free market

If the candidate is looking to distinguish herself from her father in terms of how she wields power, many of her economic ideas are the same. Before his assassination at the hands of the director of Korea’s national intelligence service, Park was widely viewed as successful in kick-starting his country’s industrial and economic development.

Park Geun-hye has indeed benefited -- in terms of her popularity and image as a scrappy politician -- from her father’s reputation as a man who whipped the South Korean economy into shape. When she announced her candidacy, Park vowed to promote a “fair and transparent free market economy”, to create “quality jobs”, and to pursue a “democratization” of Asia’s fourth largest economy at a moment when social inequalities are on the rise.

Unrealistic diplomatic ambitions?

On the diplomatic front, which is mainly dominated by relations with the North, the conservative candidate has said she would like “to put an end to the cycle of defiance, confrontation, and uncertainty” between Seoul and Pyongyang. The objective, she noted, is to “build a new Korean peninsula based on trust and peace.”

But doubts remain about Park’s ability to significantly improve the rocky relationship between the two Koreas, if she is elected. “The ties between the two countries won’t change,” Yannakakis predicted. “It will always be a relationship that alternates between tense periods and more conciliatory periods….as always everything will depend on the US and China.”



Date created : 2012-07-13