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Park Geun-hye projected to be South Korea's first female president

December 19, 2012|By Barbara Demick and Jung-yoon Choi
  • Park Geun-Hye waves to the crowd on the eve of South Korea's presidential election.
Park Geun-Hye waves to the crowd on the eve of South Korea's presidential… (Jung Yeon-je / AFP/Getty…)

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.

An early vote count at 9 p.m. Seoul time, three hours after the polls closed, showed Park leading her main opponent, Moon Jae-in, 52.6% to 47%, and major South Korea TV networks were already calling the election in Park's favor.

Park, the 60-year-old candidate of the conservative Saenuri ruling party, has served in the legislature since 1998, but her fame is inherited from her father, Park Chung-hee, who seized power in 1961 in a coup. He led the country until his assassination in 1979. Park's mother was also assassinated, in 1974, leaving Park to serve as de facto first lady at state functions for the last five years of her father;s presidency.

South Koreans credit the late Park Chung-hee for turning their impoverished, war-torn country into one of the world’s wealthiest, but are still bitter about his long repression of the its democracy movement.

"She is the daughter of a dictator, and people love her or hate her based on how they feel about him," said Choi Jong-kun, a political scientist at Seoul's Yonsei University.

In office, Park is expected to continue the conservative policies of her predecessor, Lee Myong-bak, although she has said she will try to repair the relationship with North Korea, which deteriorated under his government the last five years.

Her opponent, Moon, was a labor and human rights lawyer, active in the democratization struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, who was briefly imprisoned by Park’s security services. He served as chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the left-leaning president who killed himself after leaving office in 2009.

Turnout was the heaviest of any South Korean election, with 75.8% of eligible voters going to the polls, up 12.8% from the last election in 2007.

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Times staff writer Demick reported from Beijing and special correspondent Choi from Seoul.

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