Park Geun-hye, whose authoritarian father helped jump-start South Korea’s rise from third-world poverty, Wednesday night was elected president of a nation concerned about its slowing economy and mounting first-world social problems.
In a race that wasn’t decided until after several hours of vote counting, Park edged out former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, who conceded six hours after polls closed. With 84 percent of all votes counted, according to Korea’s National Election Commission, Park had received 51.6 percent of the votes, compared with Moon’s 48.0.
South Korea’s major television networks had declared Park the winner, and cameras showed her leaving her home in Seoul and hopping into a motorcade, en route to an eventual victory speech.
Although nationwide temperatures were in the teens and low 20s, voter turnout was 75.8 percent.
Park, 60, is an unlikely leader: She would be the first woman in charge of a nation dominated by men, and a conservative selected by voters to handle their largely left-leaning wishes, including greater engagement with North Korea and a major expansion of government welfare spending.
The two leading candidates had proposed comparable policies, their major plans differing only in degree and dollars spent. The race, instead, became a referendum on background, with Park as the “princess” and Moon as the “common man,” as Korea University political scientist Hahm Sung-deuk said.
Koreans were divided over whether the daughter of a Cold War military ruler — somebody who banned dissent and rewrote the constitution in his favor — could be the suitable leader of a 25-year-old democracy. And the debate revealed a generational divide. Park overwhelmingly received support from those 50 and older. Moon grabbed votes from those in their 20s and 30s. The pair fought over the middle ground — South Koreans in their 40s who remember the frenzied student protests for democracy but who now worry about the soaring education costs for their children, as well as the shrinking job market those kids will face when they graduate.