The results are in, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party has won South Korea's 2012 presidential election with 51.6% of the vote. She beat out Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, a former human rights lawyers.
Park Geun-hye is not only the first female president of a country where politics remains a boys' club and gender equality is the lowest of all industrialized nations, she is also the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee.
Park Chung-hee seized power of South Korea via a military coup d'état in 1961 and formalized his presidency in 1963. Park Chung-hee is credited in history for the rapid economic growth of South Korea following the Korean war, however, he is also noted for his authoritarian rule and extensive human rights violations. Park Geun-hye, at the age of 22, became de-facto first lady when her mother was assassinated. With this new role, she began her foray into South Korean politics. Her father was also assassinated by his chief of security services. Geun-hye chose not to marry and devoted her life to her country, a controversial move in a highly Confucian society. This September, she issued an apology for the human rights violations authorized by her father.
An engineering graduate, Park Geun-hye was elected to the National Assembly in 1998 and sought out leadership of the conservative party which she lost to former president Lee Myung-bak. Lee leaves South Korean politics with his approval rating at a low of 20%.
South Korea is an anomaly in the industrialized world. Rapid economic growth in the 1970s precipitated an almost over-night change in prosperity. Seoul became a bustling metro pole, with business men flooding the streets of Gangnam in their Armani suits after a long day's work, an almost caricaturized image of capitalist society. However, as all students of neoliberal economics know, high highs bring low lows and this is what South Korean society is facing today. Although economic stagnation in Korea is not at depression level, the country is predicted to only grow by 2.4% in the next year by the central bank. This is in stark contrast to the 7% promised by the former president. Economic inequality in Korea continues to grow, with startling levels of senior poverty. The image of the ajumma or ajeossi , elder men and women, picking up garbage and loading it onto their oxcarts comes to mind. Park has pledged to expand welfare schemes and take a stance against big businesses, in stark contrast to the policies of Lee. Another area where she will step away from Lee's policies is in relations with North Korea.
The Saenuri Party is factionally divided between hard-line conservatives and reformists. Lee Myung-bak had a hard-line policy on North Korea, indicated by his repeal of the Sunshine Policy which earned president Kim Dae Jung a Nobel Peace Prize. Analysts predict Geun-hye will continue to be tough on Pyongyang but will seek greater engagement than Lee. Park has spoken of restoring joint economic projects and providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, however, she insists that further dialogue is dependent on the axing of the weapons program. This seems unlikely as it was only last Wednesday that Pyongyang successfully launched a long-range rocket, defying international warnings. In this respect, it seems the stalemate between the north and the south will prevail.
South Korea is a country facing rapid economic, political and social change. As a cab driver in Korea relays to my friend, "Does it really matter who wins? Park and Moon are the same people in different clothing."
The one thing Koreans can definitely be proud of today is of giving that one girl in my class who wrote "My dream is to be a states woman" the hope that she can achieve her dream.