- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 19, 2012

SEOUL (AP) — Park Geun-hye, daughter of a divisive military strongman from South Korea’s authoritarian era, was elected the country’s first female president Wednesday, a landmark win that could mean a new drive to start talks with rival North Korea.

After five years of high tension under unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak, Miss Park has vowed to pursue engagement and send greater aid to North Korea, despite a widely condemned long-range rocket launch last week. Pyongyang’s state media, however, repeatedly has questioned the sincerity of her North Korea policy since she and Mr. Lee are from the same conservative party.

Huge crowds lined up throughout the day, braving frigid weather to choose between Miss Park and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, the son of North Korean refugees. Both candidates steered away from Mr. Lee’s policies, including, most strikingly, his hard-line stance on North Korea.

Turnout was the highest in 15 years, and some analysts thought that might lift Mr. Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the center, however, Miss Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters, who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.

Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Mr. Lee’s term. Many voters link his tough North Korea policy to nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch last week by Pyongyang that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.

North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with the rocket launch, although many voters said they cared more about economic worries.

Miss Park has said she is open to dialogue with North Korea, but she has also called on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement for better relations with Seoul. North Korea describes Miss Park’s stance as “deceptive,” saying her North Korea policy is the same as Mr. Lee‘s.

Miss Park also has raised the possibility of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but only if it’s “an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”

After Mr. Moon conceded defeat, Miss Park said that she would dedicate herself to improving public livelihood and achieving national unity.

“I really thank you. This election is the people’s victory,” Miss Park told a crowd packing a Seoul plaza.

With about 98 percent of votes counted, Miss Park had 51.6 percent to Mr. Moon’s 47.9 percent, according to the state-run National Election Commission. Miss Park is to take office in February when Mr. Lee ends his single five-year term.

No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since the ninth century. Miss Park becomes the most powerful figure in a country in which women often are paid less than men; are often trapped in low-paying jobs, despite first-class educations; and often struggle to raise families and pursue careers.

Analysts said her victory shows that women can thrive in South Korea’s tough political world.

Miss Park will govern under the shadow of her father, who is both an asset and a soft spot. Many older South Koreans revere his strict economic policies and tough line against North Korea, but he’s also loathed for his odious treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and snap executions.

Miss Park’s win means that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father’s strong charisma as president and settle the country’s economic and security woes, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.

Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy,” 50-year-old housewife Lee Hye-Young said at a polling station at a Seoul elementary school. “Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea.”

• Associated Press writers Youkyung Lee and Sam Kim contributed to this article.

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