South Korea’s president-elect Park Geun Hye will become the country’s first female leader when she takes office in late February for a single five-year term. The tight December race drew much attention as well as the highest voter turnout (over 70%) for Korea in over a decade. Park defeated Moon Jae In, a human rights lawyer who was once jailed for opposing the dictatorial regime of Park’s father, Park Chung Hee.
The elder Park was a military general who seized power in 1961 through a coup d’etat. During his 18-year rule, he declared martial law and suspended the country's constitution—leaving a mixed legacy of remarkable economic achievement and harsh authoritarian rule. While the elder Park was a staunch anti-communist, Park Geun Hye has promised greater engagement with North Korea as well as increased defense.
Older conservative voters form the president-elect’s political base and election exit polls reflected this age divide. Park secured great support among older voters while her opponent was more popular with younger voters. Park’s success is attributed in part to her family association and a liberal agenda including vows to focus on economic issues such as welfare and a reform of Korea’s large, often family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol. She has been keen to address some polarizing economic issues and has called on chaebol groups to focus less on domestic business opportunities that have traditionally been dominated by small businesses.
Park’s policies on fiscal spending, however, do not seem to differ drastically from current policies. Therefore, no significant shifts to Korea’s overall business environment are expected. Despite the historic significance of becoming Korea’s first elected president, a Park presidency is expected to maintain more continuity in policy than the election results might suggest. In terms of women’s rights, few believe that Park has done much to set more favorable policies for women than her opponent.
While Korea’s government debt to GDP and trade balance levels are currently in check, some long-term challenges still face the nation, including a low birth rate, low economic participation by women, income inequality and high unemployment among youth. However, with Park’s party enjoying a majority in Parliament, the president-elect appears well-positioned to try to navigate these challenges.
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