SEOUL - On both sides of the 38th Parallel, power is a family affair in Korea. On Monday, Park Geun-hye, 60, joined the presidential race with two historical ambitions: to become the first woman President in North East Asia and to democratically pick up the torch left by Park Chung-hee, the authoritarian father of the "South Korean miracle" – who also happened to be her father.
With 84 percent of the votes, “the heiress” easily won the Saenuri Party primary election and is believed to be the voters’ favorite to win the presidential election, which will take place on Dec. 19. But first she must withstand attacks from the left who believes that the election of this dictator’s daughter is a threat to the young South Korean democracy.
“Her last name is both an asset and a weakness,” explains Dong Jungmin, a political correspondent at the conservative daily newspaper Dong-A Ilbo. The shadow of Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979 before being murdered by the director of the National Intelligence Service, hovers over his daughter’s campaign. The tragic fate of this woman, who lost her “First lady” mother, killed by a Pyongyang regime sympathizer in 1974, has a lot to do with her popularity today.
“She is the Joan of Arc of South Korean politics,” claims Yoon Sang-hyum, a Saenuri Party MP, and one of Park Geun-hye’s counselors. An ascetic lifestyle, yoga, meditation; Park Geun-hye says that she has been married to her country since her parents’ deaths. A confirmed bachelor, she has always kept her hair short and dressed in strict clothes - her only extravagance is her red lipstick.
From “princess” to “election queen”
In 2006 the Park family curse dealt a new blow to “Princess,” when a criminal assaulted her during a political rally and slashed her face with a knife. Impassive, the heiress held her hanging cheek and ended up with a four-inch scar across her face. “I thought that my time had come.”
This episode gave her a legendary status and instant presidential potential. The “courageous princess” became “the election queen.”
Behind Park Geun-hye’s silence lies great political potential as shown by the Saenuri Party’s unexpected win in the legislative elections last April. “Many doubt her leadership abilities. But in fact, she has a true political flair inherited from her father,” says Kim Jiyoon, researcher at the Asian Institute.
“She does everything right. And older voters like the fact that she is an introvert,” explains journalist Mike Breen, just like when she kept on smiling after her surprising loss in the 2007 Presidential election against her conservative rival, outgoing President Lee Myung-back.
Her “old school” charisma even caught North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il’s attention, who warmly welcomed her during a visit to Pyongyang in 2002 – an awkward meeting between the children of Kim-Il-sung and Park Chung-hee, both the founders of two rival Koreas, one socialist and the other one capitalist. “The two heirs got along very well,” revealed the meeting’s organizer.
Yet her style does not appeal to the younger generations who were born in an era of prosperity. Especially among the women who struggle to run both a household and career and fail to identify with this austere spinster who seems totally at odds with their daily concerns.
“To win, she needs to seduce the youth,” says Kim Jyoon. In order to break the ice, Park Geun-hye has launched her own Facebook account and made several television appearances. In a country where youth unemployment and inequalities are rising, she has promised “a democratization of the economy,” shifting the party’s agenda to the center.
Yet she has never called into question her father’s rule over the country- a man who led a fierce anti-democratic repression with no mercy. “The past belongs in the past,” says Park Geun-hye to journalists, giving the opposition their best argument against her.