Her father, Park Chung-Hee, ruled South Korea with an iron fist for eighteen years (1961 – 1979). 34 years later, Park Geun-Hye won democratic elections and became the first female President of the country, usually known for being hostile to women, and in the whole Northeastern Asia region.
From an authoritarian princess to a democratic politician
Park Geun-Hye is one of the most popular and at the same time controversial public personalities in South Korea, and she was already born this way. Her father was a military strongman who in 1961 seized power through a coup d’état. The record of his long rule is still mixed for Koreans: some criticize the authoritarian system he created as well as his violence against his opponents. Others praise him for “the Miracle on the Han River”, the economic growth of post-war Korea he authored.
As a young girl Park dreamt about a scientist career, however a murder of her mother obliged her to change her life plans. She was obliged to stop her studies in France and take over her mother’s duties. She became thus the First Lady of South Korea, the office she handled until 1979 when her father was killed by his own intelligence chief.
After her father’s death, she retreated from the public stage and became a scholar. Nevertheless, in the 1990’s, after almost two decades of living in the shadow, she stepped into the limelight and came back into Korean politics.
“After both of my parents passed away I lived a very normal life but then came the Asian economic crisis that buffeted South Korea in the late 1990s. I was shocked to see what was transpiring in the country and I couldn’t just sit idly back knowing how much it took to build up this country and to see this country being engulfed in crisis and to see our people suffer so much. That’s why I decided to take up politics.”
In 1998 she gained a seat in the Parliament as a member of conservative Grand National Party and started to climb the political career ladder. In 2004, she became GNP leader and reached to reinforce the party, undermined by previous corruption scandals. Despite her successes, in 2007 primary elections, Park Guen-Hye lost the party nomination for the presidential elections against Roh Moo-Hyun. Roh Moo-Hyun finally became a president and Park found herself in opposition within her own party. After a period of internal fights and difficulties to earn back the party’s approval, Grand National Party reborn as Saenuri Party with a great come-back of Park as its leader.
Saenuri won the parliamentary elections in 2012 and Park became a plausible candidate for the presidential office. Indeed one year later, in 2013, she became the first female President of South Korea. Her victory was however partial, as she largely benefited from a high level of abstention among young voters from the vote of aged parts of the society who thanked her father for the economic miracle from after the war.
Iron Lady of South Korea
The victory of Park Geun-Hye may surprise as it happened in a country where men dominate largely on the public scene. Indeed, South Korea is on the bottom of developed countries regarding gender equality. Following Gender Gap Report it is classified on the 117th place in a 142-place ranking. Main difficulties are detected in women’s access to politics and to economy, as women are almost inexistent on parliamentary banks and in boards of directors.
Park Geun-Hye, aware of her handicap of being a woman in a strongly patriarchal society, created her public personality based on two opposite at the first sight personalities: a mother and an Asian incarnation of Margaret Thatcher.
The conservative politician, called Iron Lady of South Korea, has already expressed her admiration for the former British Prime Minister. Like Thatcher, Park is known for her perseverance, strong leadership and tenacity. In 2007 the media also baptized her “the Queen of elections” when after being attacked and slashed in her face, she was more preoccupied for elections results than for the 11-centimeter wound she had.
Nevertheless, in a strongly patriarchal society social values dictate public opinion’s attitude toward a female politician. Following traditionalist canons the most important role of a woman is being a mother and a wife, and Park Geun-Hye has been often asked about her private life. Park who was never married and has no children, has always justified this situation by saying that she sacrifices herself for the country and that the Korean society is her child. Moreover, since the 2010’s she has turned her political program into more social and family-friendly tunes.
Toward a reunification of the Korean Peninsula?
Another particularity of Park Geun-Hye is being the first president born South Korean citizen. Since the beginning of her tenure, she has had to deal skillfully with North Korea which happens to be a very complicated neighbor. The difficult history between the two countries has also marked her personal story as her mother was killed by North-Korean agent. As she explained in an interview in Le Figaro:
“My mother was murdered by a North-Korean activist and her death has completely changed my life. In my opinion her death was a tragedy that by no means should be reproduced. (…) I think that a way to worth my mother’s sacrifice is to end this tragic situation and to create a peaceful and prosperity-sharing peninsula.”
Peng is a partisan of negotiating between the two Koreas, rather than adopting military solutions. In her reconciliation project, the peacebuilding process should start with demilitarization, followed by the economic and finally political integration.
Although since 2013 relations between the two countries have been fluctuating, a little light is shining in the end of the tunnel. In January 2015 Kim Jong Un, North Korean leader, did not exclude a possibility of meeting with his Southern counterpart. It seems thus that Park Geun-Hye’s tenure can be a milestone in the peacebuilding in the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately women situation did not improve and gender equality issues are still missing from the presidential agenda. It appears that the “Park effect” for women is still to be expected.