South Korean Park Geun-hye makes bid to be country's first female president


Park Geun-hye meets former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Feb. 15, 2007. (Photo by Michael Gross/U.S. State Department.)

In South Korea, Park Geun-hye is as close to royalty as you can get.

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Tuesday, she officially announced she’s running to become the country’s first female president, moving one step closer to what many believe is her political destiny.

Park is the daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee, who kick-started Korea’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s. He was assassinated in 1979 by his spy chief.

Park still has to win the nomination of her conservative party, but polls suggest she’d be the frontrunner in the upcoming general election.

The soft-spoken 60-year-old politician once described her policies as “Korean Thatcherism.” But at her announcement, at a trendy shopping mall in Seoul, Park pledged that if elected, she would create more social welfare programs, and a country where no one is left behind. Park also promised to improve relations with North Korea.

Park’s pedigree as the daughter of the leader who helped bring South Korea out of dire poverty and into the first world, is reason enough for many here to vote for her. Jeong Cheon-joo, who came to watch the speech, said Park would be a different leader than her most recent predecessors.

“She’s honest and very direct,” Jeong said. “She’s not going to be corrupt like our other presidents. We are ready to have a female president.”

Like Jeong, most of the women in the crowd were in their sixties and seventies. Park’s campaign is having trouble attracting younger female voters, like Kang Yoo-jung, a 28-year old Ph.D. candidate at Seoul’s Sookmyung Women’s University. Kang said she can’t separate Park from her father’s dictatorial rule.

“As a woman, I’d be happy to see a female president, but not Park Geun-hye,” Kang said. “She’s a conservative who only got to where she is because of her father.”

Kang added that Park only represents the privileged class, not normal Korean women.

Park’s gender hasn’t played much of a role in her political career — and some observers say that’s intentional. Bak Sang-mee, who lectures in cultural anthropology at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said Park’s political style isn’t much different from that of her male counterparts, and that works in the male-dominated world of South Korean politics.

“I think Park Geun-hye has made a safe bet by playing the male game to show that she is as capable as male politicians,” Bak said. “I’m not sure if ordinary voters are ready for a female president.”

Bak added she’s also not sure if ordinary voters might feel put off by the fact Park has never married or had children.

Kim Hee-jung, who’s 36, brought her 1-year old son to Park’s rally at the shopping mall. She said that the candidate could have learned a few things if she had a family of her own.

“Her image is that she doesn’t communicate well with others,” Kim said. “She doesn’t know how to listen.”

Whether Park is married or not, she added, that’s a quality a president must have.