Park Holds Onto Presidency for South Korea’s Conservatives

South Korea stays the course with the election of its first female president.

South Korea’s conservatives are the projected winners in Wednesday’s election. With 75 percent of the votes counted, Park Geun-hye is set to become the country’s first female president.

The incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, served his mandated five year term, having been elected in 2007.

Voter turnout of 75.8 percent was the highest in a decade, according to the National Election Commission. More than 37 million voters braved the cold weather and long lines at polling stations in order to cast their ballots.

The race between Park, from the ruling Saenuri Party, and Moon Jae-in, of the main opposition Democratic Union Party, had been a dead heat with pollsters unable to project a clear winner in the final days of the campaign.

Both parties focused their message on domestic issues as South Koreans are increasingly concerned about their jobs and a slowing economy. Growth is projected to be 2.4 percent this year, low by South Korean standards. The left also managed to make the widening wealth gap between rich and poor an important election issue.

Park, the daughter of former military ruler Park Chung-hee, lost her first attempt at the presidency in the party’s primary in 2007 to Lee. She resigned her parliamentary seat last month when she registered as a candidate for the presidency again.

During her father’s rule, Park’s mother was assassinated when she was just 22 years old. She took over her mother’s role as South Korea’s first lady. Her father was later assassinated in 1979 by a bodyguard.

Many women in Korea hope that Park’s ascendancy to the presidency will break the glass ceiling that still exists in their society. Although the country is one of Asia’s most dynamic economies, women have been prevented from advancing to the highest positions in the workplace and government.

During the campaign, both candidates supported a resumption of dialogue with North Korea in order to allow in humanitarian aid regardless of the tenor of talks over the North’s nuclear weapons program. This is a change from President Lee’s policy which conditioned aid and investment on the communist state’s behavior. Lee was largely unsuccessful, however, as the North thumbed its nose at his conditions and continued to test rockets and nuclear weapons.

Park has said that major infrastructure assistance to the impoverished North will be based on steps of verifiable denuclearization or a policy she called “trustpolitik.” Moon was more amenable to pursuing investment in the country without denuclearization.

The United States’ relationship with South Korea will probably remain unchanged with Park in power. Moon spoke of rebalancing the country’s foreign policy in favor of closer relations with China. Park, too, will pursue close Sino-Korean cooperation if only because of the profitable trade relationship between the two countries and to get Chinese support for Korean reunification should the North collapse under her watch. But as the conservatives remain in power, there should be no significant change from Lee’s pro-American policy in the security area.