Is South Korea ready for "Madam President"?

Tue Dec 11, 2012 6:16pm EST
 
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By Ju-min Park

SEOUL (Reuters) - If Park Geun-hye wins South Korea's presidential election this month, as looks increasingly likely, she will become the first woman to hold the country's top office, challenging stereotypes in a nation that is largely run by men in blue suits.

A conservative who has 15 years experience as a top legislator and who has been dubbed "The Queen of Elections" for turning around the fortunes of her political party in a series of polls, Park says she took to politics to help save her country from the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

Park, 60, is the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee and has never married or had children, something her opponents have sought to highlight in a bid to cut back her lead in the polls ahead of the December 19 vote.

"Candidate Park has no femininity. She has never lived a life agonizing over childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices," Park Kwang-on, a spokesman for her left-of-centre opponent, Moon Jae-in, said recently.

While South Korea has risen from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become the world's 14th richest nation in a generation, and large numbers of women attend its top universities, it ranks just 108th out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2012 index of gender equality.

As a whole, women earn 39 percent less than men, the largest gap in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of developed nations.

Just half of South Korean women with a university degree are in the workforce, in part because of policies that discriminate against mothers due to the country's seniority-based pay system.

But Park, at least according to the policies she has spelt out in her campaign, is not going to tackle these issues aggressively, or make a big difference to South Korean women, especially those who have to juggle work and children.   Continued...

 
South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye (C) dances with election campaigners of the party during her campaign in Seoul December 7, 2012. Conservative and right wing Park is the daughter of late South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee who took power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until his assassination in 1979. If Park Geun-hye wins South Korea's presidential election on December 19 as now looks increasingly likely she will become the first woman to hold the country's top office, challenging stereotypes in a nation that is largely run by men in blue suits. Picture taken December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won