With the election of Ms. Park Geun-hye as president of South Korea, Korea has its first woman leader in over a thousand years. The last woman to govern Korea was Queen Jinsong, who ruled in the ninth century. Ms. Park comes from a famous political family. Her father, President Park Chung-hee, was the architect of Korea’s economic miracle. Something of a dictator, he was assassinated in 1979 by his own intelligence chief in a dispute over how long his 16-year-rule should continue. Ms. Park’s mother had died five years earlier in an assassination attempt on her husband by a Korean resident of Japan.
Their daughter kept her distance from national politics until 1998, when she felt called upon to do something to help Korea recover from the Asian financial disaster of 1997 that threatened to ruin her father’s economic legacy. Running for a seat in the Korean National Assembly from her hometown, she was elected in 1998 and has remained in the Assembly since then, where her popularity and political skills have earned her the nickname “Queen of Elections.”
As a high-profile name in Korea’s rough world of politics, Ms. Park has endured political betrayals, attacks on her character, and even an assassination attempt. Korean politics are very personal in nature. Political parties frequently rename and reinvent themselves. Ms. Park is a member of the conservative party, whose candidate won the last presidential election in 2007. Her main opponent was a member of the liberal political administration that won the 2002 presidential election and pursued a policy of accommodation toward North Korea for his five years in office.
South Korea was and still is a land of male chauvinism. A woman’s place is supposed to be in the “inner court yard” serving her father, then her husband, and finally her oldest male child, to keep alive the family tradition. Until the 1970s, women could gain national prominence only in the worlds of art and entertainment. In the government, the top position in the ministries of education, environment, and women’s welfare was often set aside for women as a political gesture.
Today, Korean women have found a place in many professions but the old culture that discriminates against them survives. In the recent electoral race, Ms. Park’s political opponents claimed that she could not be a strong national leader because she has not had the experience of being married and having children.
In the election campaign, Ms. Park’s slogan was “the president who is prepared.” Indeed, she is honest, sincere, and hard-working. Despite coming from a privileged family, she shows genuine concern for the welfare of less fortunate Koreans. Ms. Park is not without her faults. Her opponents and even some of her supporters criticize her for being reserved and secretive. Her aloofness and self-assurance is sometimes interpreted as a sign that she views herself as a political princess.
Being the daughter of a former president, who was a dictator to boot, has not endeared her to the younger generation of voters. If anything, she has been perhaps too calm when her country faced challenges from North Korea. For example, she failed to issue strong public statements when a South Korean naval ship was sunk and a South Korean island was shelled in 2010.
South Korea faces many challenges in the years ahead. The North Korean government, armed with missiles and nuclear weapons and possessed of an implacable distrust of South Korea, is a constant and unpredictable threat. North Korea is also a country that South Korea must eventually come to terms with. China, which is at the same time South Korea’s largest trading partner and North Korea’s only supporter, looms over the Korean Peninsula.
Domestically, the South Korean economy is buffeted by global stress and income inequalities are a frequent source of conflict. The second President Park will need the same level of intelligence and determination that her father had to meet the expectations of a Korean electorate that has become accustomed to peace and progress.
By Kongdan Oh
The writer is a non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution and a writer on Korean affairs. ― Ed.