South Korea New President: Park Geun-hye Has Complicated Legacy

South Korea elected Park Geun-hye its first woman president during a time when serious questions loom on both sides of the Korean border. Park, the daughter of South Korea’s most well-known, and contentious former leader (Park Chung-Hee), defeated the liberal candidate, Moon Jae — with 51.6% of the vote.

The stark change in economic and security policy on which Moon campaigned was narrowly defeated by Park, leaving the country as divided over the path forward as it is over the legacy of Park’s father. Though South Korea’s businesses are breathing a sigh of relief, Park will face tough questions from liberal South Koreans as she takes over control of the country.

Park will assume leadership during a difficult time for Korea; recent weeks saw the successful launch of a satellite by North Korea. Park also faces growing economic concerns surrounding the chaebol, the big businesses that dominate the country’s economy and are a legacy of her father’s economic vision.

Park’s father, Park Chung-Hee, is hailed as the man who brought South Korea into the global economy in the wake of the Korean War, helping to build a modern, high-tech economy that has seen rapid growth since his 18-year rule. But the former military leader is remembered as a dictator by many, and his legacy of arresting and torturing opposition figures, and banning rock music and miniskirts, leaves many South Koreans divided over his legacy as well as over the victory of his daughter.

While the country continues to grapple with its authoritarian past, the success of Park Geun-hye will be seen as a sign that the status quo, both in military and economic, remains intact. The election brought the issue of economic inequality and the country’s relations with the North onto center stage.

Korea’s economy is dominated by family-run chaebol, conglomerates created through government partnerships initiated during Park Chung-Hee’s time in power. These businesses control assets worth 57% the country’s gross domestic product, in the world’s 14th largest economy. These parternships faced substantial threats from Park’s liberal rival in the presidential race, who also sought to turn the country’s relationship with North Korea into a warm embrace, a policy that harkens back the early 2000’s.

Speaking about the chaebol, Park told reporters in July, "It is not my aim to dismantle or bash the chaebol. The main aim is to fix negative parts such as abuse of economic power and to save the positive part the chaebol have such as job creation." 

But despite the prominence of economic concerns for South Koreans, whose economy has been hailed as a miracle by observers, though sluggish in recent years, security concerns played a crucial role in this election. In the wake of the North’s successful satellite launch, a move that raised red flags across the globe and even claims that they had launched a ballistic missile, political leaders, especially from the U.S. have hailed the election of Park as a sign that the country’s tough stance on security issues will too remain intact.

President Obama called South Korea a “lynchpin” of security in Asia and noted, "Our two nations share a global partnership with deep economic, security and people-to-people ties."

With the country’s economic and security policies seemingly spared the upheaval promised by her rival, Park’s election signals a continued adversarial relationship with the North and a strong place for the chaebol in the economy. Though her victory may be due in large part to the fear over a still aggressive and increasingly threatening rival to the north, questions remain over whether that aggressive and isolating relationship helps or hurts the security balance. Further, with economic concerns high in the minds of Koreans and a strong, particularly among the country’s youth, dissatisfaction with her likely hands-off approach young people and the country’s marginalized populations will be left with few avenues for change.