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.”
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.
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.
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.
Although South Korea is notorious for its so-called “glass ceilings” for female achievement, the liberals had dominated the gender debate, sniping at Ms. Park’s never-married status and lack of motherhood experience.
On Wednesday, she responded: “Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become a president who takes care of the lives of each one of you.”
Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that although Ms. Park did not campaign on a platform of women’s issues, her victory makes her a role model for Korean women.
“There are ways in which Korean society is changing and needs to change, and in theory some of those changes can be accelerated by the fact that Madam Park has reached this position in Korean society,” Mr. Snyder said.
An economic challenge
During the campaign, there was little difference between the two candidates on the major issues of the day — the economy and North Korea. Both Ms. Park and Mr. Moon called for renewed efforts to engage North Korean officials and reforms to help South Korea’s middle class and small businesses.
“Traditionally, there were policy differences related to North Korea or economic issues,” said Kang Won-taek, a politics professor at Seoul National University. “But this time, policies are quite similar. There is no salient issue.”
Ms. Park has pledged to “restore the broken middle class,” but analysts said she has her work cut out for her.
“On the domestic front, she has to raise Korean growth rates from a paltry 2 percent to levels Koreans are used to — 5.5 percent — but at the same time do that without leaving people behind,” said Mr. Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Voting appeared to be along demographic lines, with older voters who had experienced Park Chung-hee’s “economic miracle” opting for his daughter and those who had protested the dictator and the general who succeeded him favoring Mr. Moon.
“I voted Park, she is wonderful,” said Lee Kyung-joo, 83, a retiree and Korean War veteran. “And her father was a great president.”
The clearest ground between the candidates was on corporate policy. Mr. Moon demanded tough measures to rein in the giant family-run conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai. Despite being economic locomotives, the corporations are widely alleged to crush competition.
Late in the campaign, Miss Park toned down her earlier demands for reform.
On foreign policy
Foreign policy is more complicated than it was just weeks ago.
Ms. Park and the Obama administration likely will focus on maintaining the strong relationship that Mr. Obama shared with her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, coordinating policy in response to North Korean provocations, implementing a free-trade agreement and revising a nuclear agreement, Mr. Cha said.
“They have a lot of issues on their plate,” he said. “But the U.S. feels confident in her capabilities.”
With the hawkish Shinzo Abe set to become Japan’s next prime minister, simmering territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea could prove explosive, creating a headache for Washington officials promoting a closer alliance between the two democracies as a buttress against rising China.
“We have two parallel leadership transitions and that circumstance carries with it both opportunity and risk,” Mr. Snyder said.
“[South Korea‘s] relationship with Japan is the one on which I see Madame Park is most constrained, primarily because the historical and territorial issues that have been sticking points in the relationship are ones that in Korea are associated to a certain extent with her father,” he added.
The South Korea-Japan relationship has been roiled by a dispute over a rocky outcrop of islands in the East Sea/Sea of Japan and the issue of comfort women used by the Japanese in World War II.
Ms. Park’s father was responsible for normalizing South Korea’s relationship with Japan and getting a Japanese loan that allowed South Korea to enter the steel industry and embark on the path to economic prosperity.
Still, U.S. policymakers are likely relieved at Ms. Park’s victory: Mr. Moon had pledged to upgrade Seoul’s relations with Beijing, putting them on an equal footing with Washington, and renegotiate the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.
• Ashish Kumar Sen reported from Washington.