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Asia-pacific

South Korea swears in first female president

© AFP

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2013-02-25

Park Geun-Hye was sworn in as South Korea's first female president on Monday, continuing a controversial legacy founded by her father, Park Chung-Hee, who became president in a 1961 military coup. He was later assassinated.

Park Geun-Hye was sworn in as South Korea's first female president Monday, capping a political career founded in privilege and personal tragedy.

Unlike her predecessors, she already knows the presidential Blue House well, having lived there as a child and served there after her mother's murder as first lady to her later-assassinated father.

Park was just nine years old when her father, Park Chung-Hee, came to power in 1961 in a military coup that set the stage for 18 years of authoritarian rule.

Her presidential victory was, in some ways, a referendum on the legacy of her father whose name still triggers polarised emotions in many South Koreans.

Admired for dragging the war-torn nation out of poverty, but reviled in some quarters for his repression of dissent, his shadow loomed large over Park's election campaign last December.

In an effort at reconciliation, Park publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father's regime during her campaign and apologised to the families of its victims.

Park was attending graduate school in France in 1974 when she was called back to Seoul after her mother was killed by a pro-North Korean gunman aiming for her father.

She left the presidential palace after her father was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979 and began her political career in 1998 as a lawmaker in her home town.

Park, 61, never married and has no children -- a fact she used to gain traction with voters tired of nepotism and corruption scandals surrounding their first families.

"I will earn the trust of the people by ensuring that our government remains clean, transparent and competent," she said in her inauguration speech, in which she also invoked the past image of a more caring, compassionate Korea.

"Reviving that spirit once again and building a society flowing with responsibility and consideration for others will allow us to be confident that a new era of happiness that all of us dream of is truly within our reach," she said.

The nurturing, maternal political image is at odds with that pushed by her critics, of an aloof aristocrat they call the "ice queen".

But even dissenters acknowledge her strengths as a campaigner that helped her party secure strong results in local and national polls in 2004, 2006 and this year, earning her another royal moniker as the "queen of elections".

And despite her privileged upbringing, Park has demonstrated a tough streak.

In 2006 an attacker at an election event where she was speaking slashed her face with a knife, leaving a wound that needed 60 stitches.

She will face numerous challenges when she begins her five-year term on Monday, not least dealing with a North Korea that triggered global outrage by conducting a nuclear test just weeks before her inauguration.

Even before Park won her party's presidential nomination last August the state-run Korean Central News Agency had attacked her candidacy, warning that "a dictator's bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness".

Park has signalled a break from outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak's hard line on Pyongyang, and even held out the possibility of an eventual summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un.

But she will be restricted by conservative forces in her party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea.

The North's February 12 nuclear test is almost certain to draw toughened UN sanctions -- a move likely to anger Pyongyang and further heighten tension on the peninsula.

While Park's election as South Korea's first woman president marks a major breakthrough in a male-dominated country, not everyone sees her victory as paving the way for greater women's rights.

Kim Eun-Ju, executive director of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics, believes Park is a female political leader "only in biological terms".

"For the past 15 years, Park has shown little visible effort to help women in politics or anywhere else as a policymaker," Kim told AFP.

(AFP)

Date created : 2013-02-25

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