South Korea's First Female President

Saturday, January 19, 2013 - 3:00pm

                Next month, South Korea’s first female president is expected to take office. Park Geun-hye is no stranger to politics, since her father was the leader of South Korea in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Looking back on South Korea’s history and her father’s rule, some are concerned that her father’s legacy might overshadow her work. Now that Park Geun-hye is preparing to take office in 2013, others are hopeful that a female president would improve gender equality in this conservative country.

            According to the CIA Fact Book, North Korea and South Korea officially split in 1953. After World War II, South Korea became democratically ruled while North Korea was communist. US troops and UN forces supported South Korea during the Korean War while North Korea was supported by China and Russia.

            The CIA Fact Book went on to report that Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, became the leader of South Korea by taking over the country through a military coup. One of Park Chung-hee’s priorities during his reign was economic growth. In the 1960s, the GDP per capita was comparable to the poorer countries in Asia and Africa. South Korea’s economy has grown so strongly that in 2004 they are among the world’s largest economies.  

            San Jose State University described Park Geun-hye ‘s father’s ideological background as a combination of several philosophies. He participated in a communist cell in the South Korean Army after World War II, and he was sentenced to death for his involvement in this cell. However, he was pardoned after he cooperated with authorities, and he went on to serve in the South Korean Army during the South Korean War. In 1960, he participated in a military coup where his ideology was Stalinist. Park Chung—hee promoted economic development by cracking down on business owners who profited from government corruption. Park Chung—hee had traditional values, so he wanted to bring South Korea’s social structure back to the traditional social hierarchy where merchants were ranked toward the bottom of the social ladder. This is also why he wanted to minimize foreign influences and products in South Korea. Park Chung—Hee nationalized the banks, so he could direct funds to develop the government’s priorities. There were also several agencies created to promote development: the Economic Planning Board, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Finance. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency was also created as an instrument of political control.

            Park Chung—Hee’s rule ended when he was assassinated by the head of the Korean CIA. According to San Jose State University’s Department of Economics, Park demanded that the protests and riots that were happening at the time should be suppressed “even if it costs 30,000 lives” (The Park Chung-Hee Regime in South Korea). Someone had already attempted to assassinate Park Chung-Hee five years earlier, but his wife was accidentally shot instead. Park had been preparing to give a speech, but his wife was standing next to him on the podium and was shot. Park had tried to be more careful about his safety after that incident, but he didn’t suspect that the head of the CIA, who was his friend, would attempt to shoot him.

            According to the CIA Fact Book, South Korea didn’t have a civilian president until 1993. Now, they are a modern democracy. They hosted the G-20 Summit in 2010 and the Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. They are non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, and they plan to host the 2018 Olympic Games. In 2011, the US—South Korea Free Trade Agreement was ratified and went in to effect in early 2012. Currently, South Korea’s long term economic challenges include a rapidly aging population, inflexible labor market, and heavy reliance on exports, which make up one half of their GDP.

            In this most recent presidential election, there were two candidates who were running against each other for this position. The BBC profiled these candidates prior to the election. One of the candidates was Moon Jae-In, a former human rights attorney. He was the candidate for the Democratic United Party, South Korea’s Liberal party. He was the Chief of Staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon Jae-In hoped to engage North Korea in peace talks and re—examine the free trade agreement in the United States. He wanted to increase taxes on the wealthy and curb the power of big businesses.

            The BBC also reported that Park Geun-hye was the first female to represent a major political party during a presidential election in South Korea. She wanted to focus on national reconciliation, social welfare, and economic democracy. She served in South Korea’s National Assembly in 1998 and ran unsuccessfully for president in 2007. Park Geun-hye is not married, and this has exposed her to some criticisms because of the conservative environment in South Korea.
The LA Times pointed out that both candidates had agreed upon some of their goals. Both candidates wanted to decrease the gap between the rich and the poor, improve upon social services in South Korea, and reform large corporations that dominate the economy.

            Now that Park Geun-hye has won the election, she is expected to take office in February 2013. One of her goals is to repair ties with North Korea (Demick and Choi). Some hope that Park Guen-hye might create a platform for greater gender equality in South Korea. This country ranks 108th out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 report on gender equality (Demick and Choi). In addition to the low ranking on gender equality, there is also a staggering wage gap. In South Korea, women earn an average of 39% less than men in the work force (Rauhala). President—Elect Park would also like to address child care in her platform during her presidency (Rauhala). She hopes to provide free child care for children under five years old, subsidize social security contributions, and provide university tuition for the poor (South Korea’s New President: Plenty on her Plate).


Demick, Barbara, and Jung-yoon Choi. "South Korea Elects First Female President." Los Angeles Times, 19 Ded 2012. Web. 15 Jan 2013. <
Rauhala, Emily. "South Korea Elects First Female President: Park Geun-hye." Time Magazine, 19 Dec 2012. Web. 16 Jan 2013. <
"The Park Chung Hee Regime in South Korea." San Jose State University Department of Economics. Web. 15 Jan 2013. <>.
"Profile: South Korean President-Elect Park Geun-hye." BBC News, 19 Dec 2012. Web. 16 Jan 2013. <>.
"South Korea." The World Fact Book. Central Intelligence Agency, 2 Jan 2013. Web. 16 Jan 2013. <>.
"South Korea's President: Plenty on her Plate." The Economist, 5 Jan 2013. Web. 19 Jan 2013. <
"South Korea's Presidential Candidates." BBC News, 26 Nov 2012. Web. 16 Jan 2013. <>.

About The Author
Johanna Turner