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Challenges Ahead for South Korea’s First Female President

December 19, 2012

South Koreans proved once again why they have one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia by narrowly electing the first woman as president of the country on December 19. Even though exit polls showed that she would lose, five-term lawmaker Park Geun-hye secured 51.6 percent of the vote to her liberal rival Moon Jae-in’s 47.9 percent.

Korea elections

On Dec. 19, South Koreans elected their first female president, Park Geun-hye, at left. Photo/Flickr user Julio Martinez

Turnout was a near record-high 75.8 percent, despite unseasonably cold weather. I observed voters shivering patiently in long lines at polling stations. After the National Election Commission declared Park the winner shortly after 10 p.m., she greeted her supporters in bone-chilling, 10 C cold at the main plaza in downtown Seoul.

President-elect Park is the daughter of the president who brought rapid economic development to Korea while ruling with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979. When Park takes office in February, she will face a daunting set of domestic and international challenges, starting with the issue that was most on the minds of voters: the economy.

Economic growth in Korea has slowed amid a global slowdown, falling to just over two percent this year from an annual average of 5.5 percent during its decades of growth. Meanwhile, inequality has risen. Korea may have an unemployment rate less than half the United States’ and Europe’s, but the ranks of temporary and contract workers struggling to make ends meet has grown. On election night, President-elect Park reiterated her promise to improve living standards and provide relief to mom-and-pop businesses.

While foreign policy issues played very little role in this election, the challenges in this area are even more formidable. North Korea’s rocket launch last week provided the latest reminder that Park will have to find a more effective way of dealing with North Korea. Park has pledged to warm the currently frozen North-South relations. If North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is now securely in power, then South Korea’s new president may have an opportunity to turn a new page in North-South relations.

Koreans are most anxious about a rising China and China’s relations with the United States, but tensions between China and Japan have been rising over territorial and historical disputes. South Korea’s relations with the United States have never been better, but relations with Japan have gone in the opposite direction in the wake of President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to islands claimed by Japan.

From U.N. Peacekeepers and Samsung smart phones to Psy, Korea has gained a global military, economic, and cultural presence like never before. Korea’s overseas development assistance budget has expanded rapidly in recent years. Korea’s next president will have the opportunity to cement Korea’s role as a global development partner.

President elect-Park will also have an opportunity to strengthen South Korea’s role as one of the leading advocates of green growth. In October, the United Nations selected South Korea to host the Green Climate Fund, which hopes to provide $100 billion a year in assistance by 2020. President-elect Park inherits many challenges, but also the opportunity to help Korea become an even bigger player on the global stage.

Peter Beck is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at pbeck@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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