South Korean President-elect Park Geun-Hye sets out to break the patriarchal grip on the country with the highest level of gender inequality in the world
Asia’s powerful women welcomed another member to their ranks two weeks ago when Park Geun-Hye became the first female leader of South Korea in more than 1,000 years. Korea’s last lady leader was Queen Jinsong, who ruled in the ninth century.
Park, who narrowly beat the liberal Moon Jae-in, in a close electoral race, has spent the last 15 years preparing to become president, fighting a male-dominated society and overcoming discrimination and abuse from her male political colleagues.
Debate over her sheltered past, interwoven with some extraordinary rumours and scandals, has been offset by her resolve to lead the country and vow to be the cleanest president, without a family to turn to or debts to repay.
Park was born on February 2, 1952, in Daegu, the first child of Park Chung-hee and Yook Young-soo. Her siblings Geun-ryeong and Ji-man followed in 1954 and 1958, respectively.
The family moved to Shindang-dong, Seoul, in 1958, where they lived happily for the next three years. A humble and diligent student, her life went through a dramatic change in 1961, when her father led the May 16 military coup d’etat, becoming leader of the military junta and then the country’s fifth president in 1963.
The family moved into Cheong Wa Dae. In her book, she describes her life there as suffocating, saying that for her and her siblings, the spacious garden was their best playground.
In her memoir, Park does not hide her profound love and respect for her parents, both of whom would later be assassinated.
Park was studying electronic engineering in France when her mother was assassinated in 1974. At 22, Park became the country’s acting first lady, accompanying her father to various events, greeting diplomatic delegations and continuing the medical service campaign started by her mother.
It was during this time that Park was introduced to the late pastor Choi Tae-min, whom she describes as a friend who consoled her over the loss of her mother. Choi, who reportedly underwent seven name changes and six marriages, worked with Park on various movements and organisations including in the Yookyoung Foundation. Her opponents continue to claim she had an inappropriate relationship with Choi, who died in 1994.
Park also had uncomfortable relations with her siblings in the years following the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee. In 1990,Geun-ryeong and Ji-man reportedly requested in a letter to then-President Roh Tae-woo to “save their sister” from Choi, who they accused of being deceitful. Park’s relations with her sister deteriorated further as they fought over the operation rights of Yookyoung Foundation.
Park stayed largely out of the spotlight from 1979 to 1997, though she did conduct a few interviews and launch a series of memorial projects to restore her father’s honour.
Political circles began to take notice and started suggesting she join them as she reached her 40s.
But it was not until 1997 that Park decided to enter politics after seeing the nation falter during the foreign exchange crisis.
Park began her political career by supporting then-presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang of the Grand National Party, the precursor to the Saenuri Party, and successfully ran in the by-election for a parliamentary seat representing Dalseong of Daegu the next year.
Her political career rapidly progressed. She became the party’s vice president in 1998, and served on various committees at the National Assembly including those on industry, women, unification, foreign affairs and science and technology.
Park began to raise her political presence in 2002, criticising the party’s one-man system under then-chairman Lee Hoi-chang ahead of the presidential election, and demanding the introduction of an open primary for the party.
As the fissure deepened, Park eventually left the party briefly with her followers and launched her own, raising speculation that she was aiming for the presidency.
The same year, Park was also invited by Kim Jong-il to North Korea. Some observers have suggested the meeting between the two may show that Park has a non-conventional vision on inter-Korean relations compared to her conservative party.
Park rejoined the GNP a month before the presidential election, citing the party’s acceptance of her demands for reform.
On May 31, 2006, she was attacked by an assailant with a razor during a campaign rally, which left her with an 11-centimetre gash on her chin. She would later go on to use the incident for her first television advertisement as a turning point in her life.
Park made her first presidential bid in 2007 but lost to then-candidate Lee Myung-bak in the primaries.
In this year’s campaign, Park faced growing demands by opponents to clarify her position on the oppressive rule of her father. She held a news conference in September and apologised publicly for the first time.
“In the shadows of South Korea’s rapid growth there was pain, suffering and irregularities as well as various human rights abuses committed by authorities,” Park said.
While she has promised to give priority to national reconciliation, economic democracy and social welfare, political pundits expect her to maintain a conservative approach in running the country.
She will be inaugurated on February 25.