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South Korea breaks new ground to ensure stability

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North-east Asia's first Madam President is a big step forward, writes Kim Hyung-A

The winner of South Korea's presidential election Park Geun-hye.

The winner of South Korea's presidential election Park Geun-hye. Photo: Reuters

Park Geun-hye's stunning victory in the presidential election on December 19 aroused huge interest both inside and outside South Korea.

As the candidate of the conservative New Frontier Party, Ms Park obtained 51.6 per cent of the vote, and beat progressive rival Moon Jae-in, of the Democratic United Party, by more than 3 percentage points. She is the first female politician not only in Korea but also in north-east Asia to take a nation's top post.

How should we understand Park's rise in a country that, until only three decades ago, had been ruled by her authoritarian father, Park Chung-hee, for nearly 18 years, from 1961 to 1979, when he was assassinated? What does her rise to the presidency mean at a time when the political divide is deepening while Korea's export-driven economy slows ominously amid the global slowdown?

The security tensions in north Asia are alarmingly high amid territorial disputes (between Korea and Japan, and China and Japan), and North Korea's recent launching of a long-range rocket that many observers believe to be a precursor to a ballistic missile for a nuclear bomb. This forms the background to two factors that led to Park's victory.

One is the stunning turnout of voters in their 50s and 60s and over - who gave their vote to Park - with turnouts of 89.9 per cent for those in their 50s and 78.8 per cent for the 60s and older group. This phenomenon, according to the progressive Kyunghyang Shinmun daily's random interview of voters aged in their 50s, reflected these voters' preference for the ''stability'' expected from Park, rather than risking ''uncertain reform'' from Moon.

By choosing Park over Moon, therefore, the older voters blocked a possible return of a progressive government led by Moon who, in their eyes, was too unprepared and too far to the left and too pro-North to bring the changes needed to recover the livelihoods of ordinary Korean working people, including youth and seniors. The irony is that, in the 2002 presidential election, they were the very group who played a key role in bringing victory to the progressive party candidate, Roh Moo-hyun.

Park's rise to the presidency in this sense primarily means the Korean people's reaffirmation of conservative change, especially in handling their growing economic inequality and social polarisation without unnecessarily wrecking the country's hitherto achieved economic miracle. Concerning North Korea, Park's victory means that Korea will pursue a cautious rapprochement by implementing a dual policy of greater engagement on the one hand, and robust deterrence - especially in regard to North Korean nuclear missile threats - on the other.

This dual policy is a long way from the isolationist approach of President Lee Myung-bak, who many Koreans believe has mismanaged the inter-Korean relationship. Most of all, Park believes that a strong US alliance is vital to Korea's national security, similar to what the Australian government believes. This is a good sign for the Australia-Korea relationship, especially in light of Park's personal interest in science and technology development and higher education.

Park, 60, an engineering graduate, initially built her political career on her family tragedy. First her mother was killed by a communist agent in 1974 when Park was 22, and then her father was assassinated five years later. Park, never married, entered into politics in 1998 with a public vow to ''save the country'', which was then struggling with the Asian financial crisis. Park, of course, rode on the populist surge of national nostalgia at that time towards her father for his achievement of Korea's economic miracle.

Park is a focused politician who has rapidly built a strong record of harnessing the conservative political forces in South Korea. By bringing her party back from being almost wiped out to winning victory twice, including the National Assembly elections in April 2012, she cemented not only her position as the frontrunner to win the conservative nomination for the presidency, but, using that momentum, consolidated her base, as well as the once-fractured conservative party, and delivered a groundbreaking presidential victory. This outcome is largely credited to Park's personal influence and efforts, especially in building her reputation as a principled politician who keeps her promises.

Her biggest challenge in the lead-up to the 2012 election, however, was to apologise publicly for her father's authoritarian rule and the military coup of 1960 through which he had seized power. To many supporters of liberal democracy, especially the younger generations in their 20s and 30s, she was seen largely as the daughter of a dictator and thus fundamentally an impediment to South Korea's democratic future. The fact that Park received more than the majority of the vote from those who turned out in this election - 75.8 per cent - is an indication that the Park Chung-hee legacy, both good and bad, is now in the past.

Another major factor, from which we can find answers to the questions I have raised, has been Park's newly articulated leadership approach, which she promotes as ''Mother Leadership'', or ''Woman Leadership''. Mother Leadership, according to Park, is akin to a mother's devotion and care for her family. Throughout her campaign, she repeatedly claimed that the Korean people were her ''only family'' as she had no family of her own, and thus she claimed to be in politics to make the Korean people happy. Park's portrayal of her motherly leadership, with an emphasis on feminine attentiveness and preparedness, was very effective in encouraging women to vote for her.

By pledging to help women, for example, to return to work by establishing ''career coaching'' centres, and to train a hundred thousand female workers by 2017, Park motivated many women to envision a more gender-balanced workplace. In Korea the gender pay gap is the biggest among OECD members.

She also pledged to increase in stages the ratio of females in cabinet ministries and governmental committees by changing male-oriented power structures. The resultant increase in her share of the female vote, obtaining 51.1 per cent, 3.2 percentage points more than Moon (47.9 per cent), clearly helped her victory.

To what extent this emphasis on motherly leadership will be effective, especially in terms of achieving her promises of ''economic democratisation'', not just for women, but for all Koreans, we will have to wait to see, as she is facing more challenges than she can possibly imagine.

Yet, Park's rise to the presidency unambiguously signals a big step forward taken already by ordinary working people in today's Korea.

Kim Hyung-A is associate professor of Korean politics in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.

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