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Park Geun-Hye: a president with history

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Park Geun-Hye's historic election victory that will see her installed as South Korea's first female president, caps a political career founded in privilege and personal tragedy.

Unlike her predecessors, she already knows the presidential Blue House well, having lived there as a child and served there after her mother's murder as first lady to her later-assassinated father.

Park was just nine years old when her father, Park Chung-Hee, came to power in 1961 in a military coup that set the stage for 18 years of authoritarian rule.

Her presidential victory was, in some ways, a referendum on the legacy of her father whose name still triggers polarised emotions in many South Koreans.

Admired for dragging the war-torn nation out of poverty, but reviled in some quarters for his repression of dissent, his shadow loomed large over Park's election campaign last December.

In an effort at reconciliation, Park publicly acknowledged the excesses of her father's regime during her campaign and apologised to the families of its victims.

Park was attending graduate school in France in 1974 when she was called back to Seoul after her mother was killed by a pro-North Korean gunman aiming for her father.

She left the presidential palace after her father was shot dead by his spy chief in 1979 and began her political career in 1998 as a lawmaker in her home town.

Park, 60, never married and has no children -- a fact she used to gain traction with voters tired of corruption scandals surrounding their first families.

"I have no family to take care of and no children to pass wealth to," Park said in a televised address on the last day of campaigning.

"You, the people, are my family and your happiness is the reason that I stay in politics," she added.

The maternal political image is at odds with that pushed by her critics, of an aloof aristocrat they call the "ice queen".

But even dissenters acknowledge her strengths as a campaigner that helped her party secure strong results in local and national polls in 2004, 2006 and this year, earning her another royal moniker as the "queen of elections".

And despite her privileged upbringing, Park has demonstrated a tough streak.

In 2006 an attacker at an election event where she was speaking slashed her face with a knife, leaving a wound that needed 60 stitches.

She will face numerous challenges when she begins her five-year term on Monday, not least dealing with a North Korea that has delighted in demonising her, her father and her ruling New Frontier Party.

Even before Park won her party's presidential nomination last August the state-run Korean Central News Agency has attacked her candidacy, warning that "a dictator's bloodline cannot change away from its viciousness".

Park has signalled a break from outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak's hard line on Pyongyang, and even held out the possibility of an eventual summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un.

But she will be restricted by conservative forces in her party as well as an international community intent on punishing North Korea for its third nuclear test staged last week, following a long-range rocket launch in December.

The February 12 test drew fury in the South and elsewhere in the world and is almost certain to toughen UN sanctions on the North -- a move likely to anger Pyongyang and to further heighten tension on the peninsula.

While Park's election as South Korea's first woman president marks a major breakthrough in a male-dominated country, not everyone sees her victory as paving the way for greater women's rights.

Kim Eun-Ju, executive director of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics, believes Park is a female political leader "only in biological terms".

"For the past 15 years, Park has shown little visible effort to help women in politics or anywhere else as a policymaker," Kim told AFP.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130220/park-geun-hye-president-history