Argument

The Dictator's Daughter

The heir of a controversial South Korean autocrat is now the country's first female president. Can she emerge from his shadow?

In mid-November, a prominent South Korean wood-cut artist displayed a painting depicting conservative presidential candidate Park Geun-hye cringing as she gives birth to a baby resembling her father, the deceased dictator Park Chung-hee. Officials from Park's ruling Saenuri Party quickly responded, telling reporters that the work was an assault on women and resembled Nazi propaganda; nevertheless, the crass image resonated with some South Koreans. The artist, Hong Sung-dam, a former democracy activist, said the work was a commentary on how memories of Park Chung-hee continue to influence South Korean politics. "Park's supporters tend to blindly worship her as if she is a goddess … but that's not the way voters in a democratic society should support a politician," he told Agence France-Presse.

Park has just won the South Korean presidential election, but that does not mean she'll easily escape her father's divisive legacy, or her own complicated history. At a choir performance in 1974, the 22-year-old engineering student witnessed her mother, the then-first lady, get killed by an assassin acting under orders from North Korea; he had been aiming for her father. Because she was the eldest daughter, Park's first political position was to replace her mother in the ceremonial role of first lady. Five years later, South Korea's intelligence chief murdered her father. Park disappeared from the public eye; she spent the rest of the 20th century running a lineup of charities and offering the occasional television interview.

But over the past decade and a half, the unmarried admirer of Queen Elizabeth I has engineered a remarkable political rise, cultivating an image as a reserved and morally upright leader. From 1998 until May 2012, she served as a national assemblywoman in Daegu, a southeastern city that was long her father's support base. In 2004, after the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) faced a public relations crisis for its failed attempt to impeach South Korea's president, party elders appointed Park as its chairwoman and de facto spokeswoman. In May 2006, while Park was stumping for a Seoul mayoral candidate, a man jumped on stage and slashed her face with a box cutter. Her steadfastness and bravery -- she spent a week in the hospital and took no time off from campaigning -- helped her party win back the majority in 2006 and earned her the nickname "Election Queen."

In 2007, however, her growing popularity wasn't yet sufficient to land her the GNP's presidential nomination, which the party instead gave to her rival, Lee Myung-bak, who was seen as a more experienced and pragmatic candidate. So Park went on to lead a separate GNP faction, somewhat outside the party mainstream. Over the next four years, she tried to separate her persona from Lee, who was gradually garnering disapproval from the public.

In early 2012, the GNP, struggling with low approval ratings and stung by several corruption scandals, decided Park would once again be its savior. Re-christened the "New Frontier Party" and helmed by Park, it won 40 percent of the seats in this April's legislative elections -- a surprise victory for a party that many feared was withering into irrelevance.

The stern and steely Park's rise to power is now complete -- she was elected South Korea's first female president on Wednesday, but the race was closer than many once thought. In the days leading up to the vote, polls had Park only 1.5 to 3.5 percentage points ahead of her liberal challenger, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, compared with a 7.5-point lead in early December. Unlike Moon, who wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy, Park resisted calling for corporate tax increases while promising an expansion of the welfare state, a hazily defined platform she called "economic democracy." (Although both candidates condemned North Korea's Dec. 12 rocket launch, they both seemed willing to stand by their pledge to renew negotiations with Pyongyang.) But policy wasn't the biggest issue in this race.

Park was once considered a shoo-in, but her standing seemed to be wavering because her father's legacy has alienated a young generation of urbanites who've grown up with democracy -- and who feel indifferent to the dictatorial era. During the 1970s, the elder Park faced a flaring protest movement but did not live to see the country's first democratic elections in 1987. Today, the left continues to be inimical toward Park the elder, attacking his daughter by association. This July, her approval rating fell when she defended her father, saying that he "made the unavoidable, best possible choice" in launching his 1961 coup d'état, though she reiterated an earlier apology to victims of her father's rule. During his brutish reign from 1961 to 1979, Park the elder imprisoned political opponents, often claiming they were "communists" who sympathized with North Korea. Nevertheless, older voters still tend to admire Park for fostering South Korea's economic growth by encouraging exports and building up the conglomerates, or chaebol, so important to the country's economy.

South Korea has done well. It is now the world's 14th-largest economy, boasting a per capita GDP of $31,200. Citizens, however, are fed up with corruption in politics and the chaebol, which account for nearly half of South Korea's GDP. Park's intraparty rival, current President Lee Myung-bak, is the former CEO of the chaebol Hyundai Engineering and Construction; remarks like his January warning against curbing the power of South Korea's conglomerates have led to criticisms that he's too close to big business. Park's success at the polls came down to undecided, middle-aged voters valuing the uprightness that her campaign had been trying to communicate, and overlooking her family's history of despotism.

Park's campaign struggled with maintaining that necessary image of incorruptibility. In early October, her former campaign co-manager confessed to taking almost $27,000 in illegal donations from a businessman before April's legislative elections. Then, on Oct. 26, the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper claimed it had secretly recorded a conversation between the public relations chief of an influential news broadcaster, MBC, and the chairman of the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation, a trust that owns stakes in the media outlet. Park ran the foundation as chairwoman from 1994 to 2005, and the newspaper claimed that the two executives discussed a plan to sell stakes in the outlet and put the proceeds toward helping her bid. (Both MBC and the foundation have denied the claims, and prosecutors are looking into whether the Hankyoreh illegally recorded the conversation.)

Whether or not the allegations are true, what makes the scandal sting is that in 2010, South Korea's now-defunct Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with unearthing crimes under Park the elder's dictatorship, determined that he had forcibly appropriated the foundation's predecessor from a businessman in 1961. Park responded, unconvincingly, that because she headed the group, she knows it is "cleaner than the other foundations out there." None of this destines Park to failure. But now that Park is a democratically elected president in a country once firmly ruled by her father, the question is whether she can convincingly emerge from his shadow.

Eds.: This article has been updated to reflect the results of the South Korean presidential elections on Oct. 19. 

KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP/Getty Images

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