Park Geun-Hye ... popular among older voters who remember her father's rule fondly. Photo: AFP
TOKYO: Park Geun-hye, whose father ruled South Korea with an iron first for 18 years, became the country's first female president on Wednesday, narrowly beating her opponent in one of the most divisive elections for years.
With 94 per cent of the vote counted, Ms Park had received 51.6 per cent, compared with 48 per cent for her only rival, Moon Jae-in.
Ms Park was mobbed by flag-waving supporters outside her home in the Gangnam district of Seoul as it became clear she had fended off a late surge by Mr Moon. She later thanked her staff before making a brief appearance in front of crowds in central Seoul. Her victory, she said, was a sign that the country's economy would recover.
Family tradition ... supporters of Ms Park celebrate while holding a photo of her late father and mother, both assassinated. Photo: Bloomberg
Mr Moon, a leftwing former human rights lawyer from the Democratic United party, conceded defeat and congratulated Ms Park on her victory.
Ms Park, 60, had to overcome resentment towards her privileged background and accusations that her Saenuri party was too close to the powerful chaebol conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. While her gender was a frequent talking point among pundits, it did not appear to have been a major influence on voters.
The election has captivated South Koreans, who turned out to vote in huge numbers despite below-freezing conditions. The country's election commission put turnout at 75.8 per cent, the highest in 15 years. Mr Moon, who appealed more to younger voters, had stated that he needed a turnout of 77 per cent to stand a chance of making it to the presidential Blue House.
Many voters were divided over Ms Park's suitability to tackle mounting economic problems, improve welfare for a rapidly aging population and improve relations with North Korea after five years of deteriorating cross-border ties under the current hardline president, Lee Myung-bak.
The legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, continued to divide the country 33 years after his death. Older, conservative voters credit him with promoting rapid industrialisation and laying the foundations for today's powerful economy. Others have never forgotten his ruthless crackdowns against opponents, some of whom were tortured or executed, and blame him for delaying the arrival of democracy.
Mr Moon, 59, was among the democracy activists imprisoned during General Park's rule, which ended in 1979 when he was assassinated by his intelligence chief. Five years earlier, Park Geun-hye, then just 22, had been forced into the role of first lady after her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed by a North Korean assassin's bullet intended for her husband.
Fond memories of her mother, South Korea's most popular first lady, and a belief that she had inherited her father's determined streak, may have given Ms Park the vital few votes that secured her victory.
"Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy," said Lee Hye-young, a 50-year-old housewife from Seoul. "And I think she would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea."
Park Hye-sook, a 67-year-old resident of the capital, said she trusted Ms Park. "She will save our country. Her father rescued the country."
North Korea did not become a major issue in the election until last week, when it successfully launched a rocket and sent a satellite into orbit.
Both candidates said they would seek greater engagement with the North, although Ms Park may have benefited from her demand that the regime abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Ms Park, who said she had never married or had children so she could devote her life to public service, will inherit a formidable array of economic problems when she takes office on February 25.
Inequality and youth unemployment have increased under Mr Lee, who by law could not seek a second term, and the economy is forecast to grow this year at its slowest pace since 2009.
Guardian News & Media