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South Korea elects its first female president

Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the country’s former military ruler, faces many challenges including an ageing population, rising welfare costs and North Korea.

Park Geun-Hye waves to supporters in Seoul earlier.
Park Geun-Hye waves to supporters in Seoul earlier.
Image: Lee Jin-man/AP/Press Association Images

SOUTH KOREA HAS elected  its first female president, with voters handing a historic victory to conservative candidate Park Geun-Hye, daughter of the country’s former military ruler.

As leader of Asia’s fourth-largest economy, Park, 60, will face numerous challenges, handling a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.

The National Election Commission said early Thursday (local time) that Park, from the ruling New Frontier Party, had secured the necessary votes to beat liberal rival Moon Jae-In of the main opposition party, according to Yonhap news agency.

With more than 99.3 per cent of the vote counted, Park had secured 51.6 percent against Moon’s 48 per cent, the report said.

The election was largely fought on domestic economic issues, with both candidates offering similar policies as they went in search of centrist voters beyond their traditional bases.

Park had pushed a message of “economic democratisation” — a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities thrown up by rapid economic development — and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.

However, she had been far more cautious than Moon about the need to rein in the power of the giant family-run conglomerates, or “chaebol”, that dominate the national economy.

North Korea

“This election was a victory for all of you, the people,” Park told cheering, flag-waving supporters at an open-air victory celebration in central Seoul.

“It is a victory from the heart of the people hoping to revive the economy,” she added.

On North Korea, Park has promised a dual policy of greater engagement and “robust deterrence”, and held out the prospect of a summit with the North’s young leader Kim Jong-Un, who came to power a year ago.

She also signalled a willingness to resume the humanitarian aid to Pyongyang suspended by current President Lee Myung-Bak.

But analysts say she will be restricted by hawkish forces in her ruling party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea for its long-range rocket launch last week.

Park has never married and has no children — a fact that makes her popular with voters tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.

A female president will be a huge change for a country that the World Economic Forum recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality — one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.

Park’s presidential inauguration will be held on February 25.

- AFP, 2012

Read: North Korea removes rocket from launch pad: report

GALLERY: South Korea prepares for Armed Forces Day 2012

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Hugh O'Connell

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