Park Geun-hye, daughter of a divisive military strongman from South Korea's authoritarian era, has been elected the country's first female president, a landmark win that could mean a new drive to start talks with rival North Korea.
After five years of high tension under unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak, Park has vowed to pursue engagement and send greater aid to North Korea, despite a widely condemned long-range rocket launch last week. Pyongyang's state media, however, has repeatedly questioned the sincerity of her North Korea policy since she and Lee are from the same conservative party.
Huge crowds lined up throughout yesterday (NZ time), braving frigid weather to choose between Park and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, the son of North Korean refugees. Both candidates steered away from Lee's policies, including, most strikingly, his hard-line stance on North Korea.
Turnout was the highest in 15 years, and some analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the center, however, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee's term. Many voters link Lee's tough North Korea policy to nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch last week by Pyongyang that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with the rocket launch, although many voters said they cared more about economic worries.
Park has said she is open to dialogue with North Korea, but she has also called on Pyongyang to show progress in nuclear dismantlement for better relations with Seoul. North Korea describes Park's stance as "deceptive," saying her North Korea policy is the same as Lee's.
Park has also raised the possibility of a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but only if it's "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern."
After Moon conceded defeat, Park said that she would dedicate herself to improving public livelihood and achieving national unity.
"I really thank you. This election is the people's victory," Park told a crowd packing a Seoul plaza.
With about 98 per cent of votes counted, Park had won 51.6 per cent to Moon's 47.9 per cent, according to the state-run National Election Commission. Park is to take office in February when Lee ends his single five-year term.
No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since the ninth century. Park becomes the most powerful figure in a country where women are often paid less than men, are often trapped in low-paying jobs, despite first-class educations, and often struggle to raise families and pursue careers.
Analysts said her victory shows women can thrive in South Korea's tough political world.
Park will govern under the shadow of her father, who is both an asset and a soft spot. Many older South Koreans revere his strict economic policies and tough line against North Korea. But he's also loathed for his odious treatment of opponents, including claims of torture and snap executions.
Park's win means that South Korean voters believe she would evoke her father's strong charisma as president and settle the country's economic and security woes, according to Chung Jin-young, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in South Korea.
"Park is good-hearted, calm and trustworthy," 50-year-old housewife Lee Hye-Young said at a polling station at a Seoul elementary school. "Also, I think Park would handle North Korea better. Moon would want to make too many concessions to North Korea."