South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye celebrates with members of… (Song Kyung-Seok / Pool Photo )
SEOUL — Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the strongman who ruled South Korea for much of the 1960s and 1970s, was elected Wednesday as the country's first female president after a divisive, hotly contested election.
Park, a member of the conservative New Frontier ruling party, has been a legislator since 1998. But her claim to fame before now came from her father, Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961 in a military coup and led the country until his assassination in 1979. Park, whose mother was killed in 1974, served as de facto first lady at state functions for the last five years of her father's presidency.
The president-elect, speaking after liberal candidate Moon Jae-in had conceded defeat, reportedly pledged to strive for national unity.
"This election is the people's victory," Park, 60, told a crowd in Seoul. "I believe this was brought about by the people's desperate desire to overcome hardship and revive the economy."
Park, who is expected to take office in February, is likely to continue the conservative policies of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, although she has said she will try to repair the relationship with North Korea that deteriorated under his government during the last five years. Park visited Pyongyang in 2002 and met with then-leader Kim Jong Il, whose son Kim Jong Un became North Korea's leader after his father's death a year ago.
Despite the robust democracy in this country of 50 million people, the irony was not lost that both Koreas will now be governed by the offspring of autocratic leaders.
Park is an outlier in South Korea's tradition-bound society in that she never married, devoting her life to her family's legacy and to politics. She interrupted her studies in France to help her father. She served four terms in the legislature and sought the presidential nomination in 2007, losing to the outgoing president, Lee.
To a large extent, this year's election — which generated the highest voter turnout in years and gave Park a decisive victory — followed the conservative tide observed three days earlier in Japan, where the establishment party was returned to power after a three-year hiatus, reinstalling former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The election of a woman throws a new dimension into the political arena in South Korea, which, despite its advanced economy, ranked only 108 of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2012 report on gender equality. But some women tended to be dismissive of Park as just another in a long line of Asian daughters and widows who have risen in political office on the coattails of a powerful man — Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi of India, Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines.
"She has done absolutely nothing for women. She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee and she doesn't sympathize or understand the common people," said Lee Kyeong-ah, who is in her early 40s and was watching television results with other dejected Moon supporters at a cafe.
Moon is a labor and human rights lawyer who came of age politically in the democratization struggles of the 1970s and 1980s and was briefly imprisoned as a student by the elder Park's security services. He served as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the left-leaning president who killed himself in 2009 after leaving office.
Many South Koreans credit Park Chung-hee for transforming an impoverished, war-torn country into an industrial powerhouse, but are still wary of the way he usurped power and repressed the democracy movement.
During the campaign, Park apologized for her father's repression of students and democracy activists, while still lauding his achievements in 18 years in power — a message she's conveyed throughout her political career.
"Different times need different types of leadership," Park said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2002. "My father was criticized as a dictator, but that should not overshadow his accomplishments in restructuring the country. He brought Korea out of 5,000 years of poverty. What he left unaccomplished was democratization of the system."
Although voters were divided during the campaign, the candidates did not differ greatly on most issues. Both agreed on the need to lessen the gap between rich and poor, improve social services and reform the large conglomerates, chaebol, that dominate the economy.
North Korea surprisingly was not a major issue in the campaign, despite its successful rocket launch last week. Both candidates promised to repair relations, although Park emphasized that any South Korean assistance would require better behavior in return for aid.
"I think Park is a trustworthy woman," said Chang Ki-chang, an 82-year-old retired school principal. "For decades, she's proved to the people that she keeps her promises and that she has a good sense of leadership."
In person, Park is gracious. While campaigning, she often appeared cold, with the stiff-upper lip of her father, who famously continued a speech after his wife was shot standing next to him at a theater. Park was attacked by a man with a box cutter in 2006 and, despite requiring 60 stitches, she resumed campaigning soon afterward.
"A few years ago, you could have dismissed her as a president's daughter, but she has become a strong politician in her own right, less Benazir Bhutto than Angela Merkel," said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political expert at Korea University, referring to the former Pakistani prime minister and the German chancellor, respectively. "She is not so strong on details, but she is good at unifying people and that will be important for Korea's next leader."
Times staff writer Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Choi from Seoul.