SEOUL – South Korea appeared to have elected its first female president Wednesday as national TV predicted a clear victory for conservative Park Geun Hye, daughter of the country’s former dictator.
More than three hours after polling stations closed, the KBS, SBS and MBC national broadcasters all declared Park “certain” to secure a historic win over her liberal rival, Moon Jae In.
With more than 40 percent of the nationwide vote counted, Park was leading with 52.5 percent over Moon’s 47.1 percent, but there was no formal concession or claim of victory from either side.
Park and her Saenuri Party would face a raft of challenges on entering the presidential Blue House in February, including a belligerent North Korea, a slowing economy and soaring welfare costs in one of the world’s most rapidly aging societies.
A large crowd of supporters had gathered outside Park’s Seoul residence, cheering and waving the national flag.
Despite freezing temperatures that hovered around -10 Celsius, the election was marked by a high turnout of around 75 percent, compared to 63 percent in the 2007 presidential poll.
A Park victory would not only make her the first female president of a still male-dominated nation — and the first in modern Northeast Asia — but also the first to be related to a former leader.
Her father, Park Chung Hee, remains one of modern Korea’s most polarizing figures — admired for dragging the country out of poverty and reviled for his ruthless suppression of dissent during 18 years of military rule.
He was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979. Park’s mother had been killed five years earlier by a pro-North Korea gunman aiming for her father.
Moon, the son of North Korean refugees and a one-time chief of staff to the late leftwing President Roh Moo Hyun, is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the Park regime.
For all their differences, Moon and Park, who belongs to departing President Lee Myung Bak’s party, hold remarkably similar views on the need to engage with Pyongyang and other issues.
One big reason: Many voters are dissatisfied with Lee, including with his hardline stance on the country’s authoritarian rival to the north. Park has had to tack to the center in her bid to become South Korea’s first female president.
Many voters blame inter-Korean tension for encouraging North Korea to conduct nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch by Pyongyang last week 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.
Both candidates propose pulling back from Lee’s insistence that engagement with North Korea be linked to so-far-nonexistent nuclear disarmament progress by Pyongyang. Park, however, insists on more conditions than Moon.
Moon was a close friend of late President Roh, who championed the so-called Sunshine Policy of no-strings-attached aid for Pyongyang.
Moon wants an early summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Park has also held out the possibility of such a meeting, but only if it’s “an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern.”
Both talked of “economic democratization” — a campaign buzzword about reducing the social disparities caused by rapid economic growth — and promised to create new jobs and increase welfare spending.
South Koreans express deepening worry about the economy and disgust over the alleged involvement of aides close to Lee in corruption scandals.
The never-married Park had promised a strong, parental style of leadership that would steer the country through the challenges of global economic troubles.
“Like a mother who dedicates her life to her family, I will become the president who takes care of the lives of each one of you,” she said in her last televised news conference on Tuesday before the vote.
A female president is a big change for a country that the World Economic Forum recently ranked 108th out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality — one place below the United Arab Emirates and just above Kuwait.
“Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy,” 50-year-old housewife Lee Hye Young said at a polling station at a Seoul school. “Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea.”