Inside Story

South Korea: Which way forward?

We ask if the country's first female president can handle the political, economic and security challenges ahead.
Last Modified: 20 Dec 2012 11:50

South Koreans on Wednesday elected Park Guen-hye to succeed Lee Myung-bak as president. She will become the country's first female leader.

It was a hard-fought contest between Park, the conservative daughter of a former military ruler, and her left-wing challenger, Moon Jae-in, the liberal son of North Korean refugees.

"As the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee she is in some way seen as compromised by the left. Also her style of governance there's been a great deal of concern that she's not someone who's used to the rough-and-tumble of daily politics …. Many people are worried that she doesn't really have the instincts and ability to relate to ordinary South Koreans."

- John Swenson-Wright, a consulting fellow at Chatham House

Lee is stepping down as legally required after a five-year term.

One of the crucial factors in Wednesday's election has been the very high voter turnout, despite it being held in the coldest weather of any presidential poll since they began in 1987.

Final official figures show that nearly 76 percent of eligible South Koreans voted on Wednesday. In 2007, the voter turnout was nearly 63 percent and it was about 71 percent in 2002.

Both candidates fiercely debated the economy, which, as in many elections, is what matters most to voters. Almost 1/5 of South Koreans earn less than half the national average income.

For many it is the country's growing gap between rich and poor, and a resentment of the country's economic elite families, the so-called chaebol conglomerates.

South Korea's economy grew by 1.6 percent this year, lower than initially estimated, which was blamed mainly on a rapidly ageing population and higher household debt.

"South Korea plays a very important role if you're thinking future in terms of however North Korea gets integrated into the region. [The] South Korean relationship with the US remains extraordinarily important in terms of trade … and if you think of security issues, South Korea's ability to maintain its military … all that hinges on the economy."

- Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute

A more marginal issue in the campaign, though just as important in the long run, is what to do about North Korea.

The outgoing South Korean president has pursued an aggressive policy towards the nuclear-armed North, which seems to have turned off many voters.

In addition to promising greater engagement with Pyongyang, both candidates also promised to rein in South Korea's powerful family-run businesses.

Inside Story asks: What are the challenges ahead for South Korea's first female president?

Joining the discussion with presenter Hazem Sika are guests: Kwang Ho-chun, a senior lecturer and course leader for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Central Lancashire; John Swenson-Wright, a consulting fellow for the Asia Programme at Chatham House; and Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

"What brought Park to be the president-elect are the memories of [her father]. Even though he was a dictator, he was the one who made South Koreans escape poverty, meaning the memories of a lot of older generation [voters]. I don't think her [personal background] will make any difference to her term in office."

Kwang Ho-chun, from the University of Central Lancashire


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