- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2012

SEOUL — South Koreans on Wednesday elected their first female president — Park Geun-hye, leader of the conservative New Frontier Party — in a close election with results that are likely to please U.S. officials, analysts said.

“She is very well-known in Washington, and everyone on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, think very highly of her,” said Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. Cha said Ms. Park’s victory is historic because she will become South Korea’s first female president in a “terribly male-dominated society” and because she is the first South Korean president “since democratization in 1987 to get over 50 percent of the votes.”

Ms. Park, the 60-year-old daughter of a former dictator, received 51.6 percent of the vote in defeating Moon Jae-in, leader of the liberal Democratic United Party, who garnered 48 percent of the vote. Polls before the election had predicted a much closer race.

“It has been a tough, difficult election, but we did well,” Ms. Park said at her party’s headquarters. Later at a central plaza in Seoul, she told supporters that her election is “a victory for the citizens’ hearts,” and pledged herself to be “a president who keeps promises.”

South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye receives a bouquet after making a victory ... more >

President Obama offered his congratulations to Ms. Park, saying in a statement that he looks “forward to working closely with the Park administration to further enhance our extensive cooperation with the Republic of Korea on a wide range of important bilateral, regional and global issues.”

Jae Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, noted U.S. officials’ familiarity with Ms. Park and said they also will likely know those she appoints to her Cabinet or as advisers.

“In that sense, the U.S.-South Korea relationship will be better than had Mr. Moon won, but that is not to say it will be perfectly smooth,” Mr. Ku added.

Ms. Park, who has visited North Korea, is expected to push for dialogue with the totalitarian government in Pyongyang. During her campaign, she said she would consider economic aid to North Korea on the condition that Pyongyang commit itself to ending its nuclear weapons program.

“I think that in the first six months to a year [of the Park administration] there might be some awkwardness and discomfort in the U.S. as Seoul reaches out [to Pyongyang],” Mr. Ku said.

However, in the wake of North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket — just one week before the election — it remains to be seen how far a new government in Seoul will reach out to the secretive North Korean regime.

“We are threatened by North Korea. The lives and property of our people are at risk. The duty of our leaders is to protect the people,” Ms. Park said late in the campaign.

No stranger to history

Ms. Park is best known as the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in 1961 and transformed South Korea from agricultural backwater to industrial power at the cost of abusing human rights and suppressing democracy.

When she assumes office in February, it won’t be her first visit to the presidential residence called Blue House: She became the country’s de facto first lady in her 20s after her mother was shot by a pro-North Korean assassin in 1974. Her father was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

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