Milestone for South Korea: Nation Elects Park Geun-hye, First Female President [UPDATED]

Earlier today South Korea elected a new president, Park Geun-hye. That she is the nation's first female president would have been striking news on its own. But in Park's case, the fact that she is the daughter of South Korea's longest-ruling dictator, Park Chung-hee, seems to be playing a significant role in people's reaction to the story.

Park defeated liberal opponent Moon Jae-in with 51.64 percent of the vote. Moon is a former human rights lawyer who was once imprisoned for opposing Park's father's authoritarian rule. He was only able to secure 47.93 percent of the people's vote.

We reached out to Asia Society friends and experts for their thoughts on the news. Here are some of their reactions.

I attended her father's funeral in 1988 as a member of the U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. From assignments in the NSC and the Pentagon, I worked the turbulent succession struggle that followed. My guess is that the new President Park will bend over backwards to preserve the democratic traditions demanded by the Korean public of those who came after her father. 

— Nick Platt, former U.S. diplomat and Asia Society president

The election of conservative candidate Park Geun-Hye as President of South Korea suggests that her campaign pledge to pursue ‘economic democratization’ resonated well with voters who are grappling with a slowing economy, rising income inequality, and persistent youth unemployment. She will face enormous pressure to make due on promises to bolster the country’s social welfare system and rein in the family-run giant conglomerates, whose influence has been the target of swelling popular discontent. Although economic concerns dominated the campaign, in light of Pyongyang’s recent rocket recent launch, relations with North Korea will also her demand attention.

— Suzanne DiMaggio, Vice President of Global Policy Programs, Asia Society

Voter turnout for Wednesday's election was tallied at 75.8 percent, and Park, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, won by a slim margin, securing approximately 50.1 percent of the vote. Ms. Park, 60, already served as South Korea's first lady of sorts, after her mother was assassinated in 1974. Now, she faces daunting tasks in her father’s former role: reviving the economy, improving trade and diplomacy, mending relations with North Korea, and most importantly, embracing the 49 percent of the South Korea that supported her opponent. There will never be a perfect result, and there will always be some discontent, but here's genuinely hoping that Korea's first female president can take the country where no man had been able to before.

— Yvonne Kim, Executive Director, Asia Society Korea Center

Congrats Park Geun-hye! Many of us are skeptical of your ability but please prove us wrong. That's how this nation can heal its scars and move on. I look forward to being surprised by you.

— Wonsuk Chin, Asia 21 Young Leader, Seoul-based filmmaker

What an interesting time in North East Asia. We have new leaders in almost every state — Kim Jong Un, the latest in the dynasty in North Korea, Xi Jinping in China, the nationalist LDP leader Shinzo Abe in Japan, and now Park Geun-Hye in South Korea. I'm curious to see how Park's idea of "Trustpolitik" will play out with the DPRK and if her being a woman has any implications for the status of women in S. Korea, where up until now, women on average have earned 39 percent less than their male counterparts — almost double the gender gap in the US (20 percent). With regard to American Foreign Policy, Park's win seems to ensure more continuity than would have a Moon victory, but Park is obviously going to have a balancing act to play between China and the US. And then there's Abe again who will probably not waste time visiting the Yasukuni Shrine and adding fuel to Le Liancourt Dokdo/Tsukishima controversy. My personal hope is that Park Geun-hye will maintain funding for the arts as South Korea continues to try and establish itself internationally as a nation culturally and aesthetically unique in North East Asia.

— Jocelyn Clark, Asia Society Korea Center member; Professor, Appenzeller International Studies at Pai Chai University, South Korea

While congratulations pour in to South Korea for President-elect Park Geun-hye, many challenges await her when she takes office. The economy is the biggest domestic challenge, but it may be on the foreign policy front that she faces her most difficult challenges. With new leaders in North Korea, China, Japan, and the United States in the last year, South Korea’s neighborhood is in a state of change. A territorial dispute with China, historical tensions with Japan, and the ongoing relationship (or lack thereof) with North Korea will require a steady hand from both the President-elect and the other new leaders in the region.

— Mike Kulma, Executive Director of Global Leadership Initiatives, Asia Society

Below is a Storified account of the news coverage and analysis surrounding Park's victory. We will continue to update this story throughout the day. Check for updates at the bottom.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Tahiat Mahboob
Tahiat Mahboob is Asia Society's Senior Multimedia Producer. She grew up in Bangladesh, worked at New York Fashion Week and taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.