Leading candidate needs to draw young voters to win Saenuri primary and Dec. poll
Park Geun-hye, the daughter of assassinated former President Park Chung-hee, will make history in a male-dominated society if her campaign to become the country’s first female president succeeds.
Park, who on Tuesday declared her candidacy for the conservative ruling Saenuri Party, lost both her parents to gunmen while she was still in her twenties but pressed ahead undaunted with her own political career.
She enjoys high popularity among many conservative and older voters nostalgic for the rapid economic growth under her father, who ruled from 1961 to 1979 after seizing power in a coup.
Park Geun-hye declares her candidacy for the Saenuri Party’s presidential primary on Tuesday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Park, 60, is unlikely to face a serious challenge in her party’s primary and analysts say she stands a good chance of victory in the December 19 poll.
But they stress her need to win over younger voters and shake off an aloof image.
Korea University professor Lee Nae-young cited her proven leadership skills, political experience and strong power base in her home province of North Gyeongsang.
But she is seen by many young, urban voters as an autocratic figure who does not communicate with ordinary people “probably because of her personal background,” Lee said.
Park was born on February 2, 1952, in the southern city of Daegu and was nine when her father became president.
This undated photo shows Park Geun-hye and her father, former President Park Chung-hee, in the late 1970s. (Korea Herald file)
He summoned her from graduate school in France to act as first lady after her mother was killed in 1974 by a pro-North Korean gunman aiming for her father.
Park only left the presidential palace after her father was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. She began her own political career in 1998 as a lawmaker in her home town and was elected three more times in the same district.
In 2007 she narrowly lost the conservative party’s primary to Lee Myung-bak, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second presidential term.
“The legacy of her father, who still receives mixed evaluations, was the source of her popularity and a limiting factor as well,” said Korea University’s Lee.
Park senior was widely praised for the country’s dramatic economic development but reviled for his human rights record.
Supporters praise his daughter, who never married and leads an intensely private life, for what they see as her calm and principled leadership.
Opponents portray her as aristocratic and aloof.
Her restrained style reflects her secluded life as a privileged child in the presidential Blue House, said Kookmin University professor Cho Choong-bin.
Her father’s legacy has both pros and cons but complicates her efforts to broaden her power base beyond conservatives, he said.
About 20 percent of the electorate are not interested in politics but want a reliable national leader and they hold the key to victory, Cho said.
Sejong Institute analyst Jin Chang-soo said Park’s main appeal is her strong-willed character and clean image.
She also has a track record as a skilled politician, helping her party secure strong electoral results in 2004, 2006 and this year and winning the nickname “Queen of Elections.”
In 2006 an attacker at an election event where she was speaking slashed her face with a knife, leaving a wound that needed 60 stitches.
In this April’s general election she impressed voters with her tireless campaigning, shaking hands until she had to bandage one wrist.
She stresses “economic democratization” and expanded welfare in a country with a growing wealth gap and high youth unemployment. The economy remains dominated by the mighty conglomerates fostered by her father.
“Park has worked out an effective election strategy stressing expanded distribution of wealth through economic growth, which traditionally have been the slogans of liberal candidates,” said Korea University’s Lee.
North Korea has lashed out at Park, even though she has distanced herself somewhat from President Lee’s hard line on cross-border relations.
“A dictator’s bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness,” its news agency said in April.