Voters in South Korea have returned Park Geun-hye to the Blue House, the nation's presidential residence. Park knows the grounds of Cheongwadae (as the house is known in Korean) well, having grown up there in the 1960s and 1970s as the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. Park's election also completes a peculiar Northeast Asian triumvirate, as Park, Japan's Shinzo Abe (grandson of former Prime Minister Nobosuke Kishi), and North Korea's Kim Jong-un (son of Kim Jong-il) are all descendants of former leaders/rulers of their respective nations.
Having run through the trivia, here's a bit of analysis...
Park won with approximately 52% of the vote, making her the first president to receive an actual majority of the popular vote, rather than a simple plurality. Turnout, at almost 76%, was surprisingly high given that Korea's domestic political scene has been remarkably stable in recent years. Moreover, the battle between Park and her main opponent, Moon Jae-in, was hardly a contrast in sweeping visions for the future of the country. Both Park and Moon had their moments of "welfare populism" - i.e. promising voters goodies bought with other people's money - although as the election neared, Park focused more on promises of "national unity" and "motherly" leadership. That both Park and Moon are professional politicians who see the road to all things great and wonderful as running through the state likely explains the tedium involved in parsing their differences.
Truth is, Park and Moon would not have differed much when the time came to direct domestic economic and political affairs. Last summer, I attended a discussion with Swiss economist Henrique Schneider who pointed out that, while Korea's political rhetoric often makes the place sound like a Venezuela in the making, the country has moved with remarkable speed toward greater economic liberalization and openness. Consider, for instance, that it was Kim Dae-jung - no right-wing ideologue - who responded to the 1997 financial crisis with a wave of privatizations and government reforms that greatly boosted Korea's economic prospects. And let us not forget that it was Roh Moo-hyun, Kim's leftist successor, who initially kicked off negotiations for the recently-ratified Korea-US free trade agreement. Meanwhile, the nominally-conservative Lee Myung-bak government has seldom hesitated to meddle in the markets, even as Lee's administration has essentially moved the country toward greater engagement with world trade. I'm not convinced, therefore, that Park and Moon offered the study in contrasts that their camps were trying to peddle.
Except, that is, on one key issue...
Where Park and Moon differed most was in their views on how to handle South Korea's troublesome neighbor to the north. Moon, former chief-of-staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, favored a return to the Sunshine Policy (read: bribe North Korea to be nice), while Park's stance toward the DPRK will likely hew more closely to that of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak (read: play nice and maybe - maybe! - we'll talk). After North Korea's 2010 attacks on a South Korean naval ship and on Yeonpyeong Island, many South Koreans were openly wondering if perhaps bribing North Korea for good behavior wasn't a better deal, but memories of these events were apparently not enough to sway the election in Moon's favor.
Finally, I guess we have to address the matter of Park's gender. She is, in case you hadn't noticed, a woman. Throughout my time in Korea, I met many folks who weren't fans of Park Geun-hye, but seldom was her womanhood central to their gripes. Some people harbored resentment toward her father, others disliked her style or political stance, but I can only recall one individual who thought that Park's gender disqualified her as a presidential contender (and he likely held his nose and voted for her anyway). As anyone who's spent time in Korea knows, the nation's culture is a tad patriarchal, to put it mildly, and no more so than in the traditional conservative circles. For years, however, Park has represented the city of Daegu - arguably the most conservative corner of Korea - and the city voted overwhelmingly for her in yesterday's election. I look forward to hearing a sociologist's take on the meaning of Park's ability to unite the conservative base and get her XX chromosomes into the Blue House.
For now, however, I'm looking to the future and, along with Kevin Kim, wondering when Korea will get its first black president.