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.