The Most Powerful Woman in South Korea: Park Geun-hye

Person of Interest
South Korean President Park Geun Hye. Photo Illustration by Newsweek (Source: AFP)

Park Geun-hye has long been one of the most powerful women in South Korea, and when she is sworn in next week, she will make history as the first female president of the patriarchal conservative country. For those who’ve followed the political career of the “Queen of Elections,” as she is known, it isn’t a surprising turn of events. Park, 61, is nothing if not tenacious—a tenacity she may have inherited from her father, the late dictator Park Chung-hee. Both her parents were assassinated, and she was herself once stabbed in the face by a disgruntled voter during an election campaign. Despite such adversity, Park has stayed the course to high office, leading her conservative Saenuri Party to numerous election victories—most recently in December, when she defeated her liberal rival, the human-rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, for the presidential office.

Such tenacity will come in handy if she is to resolve the country’s many challenges at home and abroad. North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un continues to stoke military tension around the Korean peninsula. Earlier this month, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. Though Park took a stern tone with the ever-belligerent neighbor, warning that Pyongyang “will collapse” if it continues on this path, it was a blow to Park, who promised to establish a “trust process” with South Korea’s neighbor.

Domestically, the president-elect faces the daunting challenge of implementing what she has termed “economic democracy”—expanded social welfare, more jobs for the young, and curtailing the power of the huge family-run conglomerates that dominate the country’s financial system. But slow economic growth may hinder such bold reforms. Already Park has found herself under pressure to scale down a health-care project for lack of funding.

But to discount Park’s tenure before it even begins would be premature. After all, she is a master obstacle blaster. Having earned an engineering degree from Seoul’s Sogang University, she was studying in France when her mother was shot dead by a Korean-Japanese assassin aiming for her father. Thrust into the role of acting first lady at age 22, she quickly learned how to greet foreign dignitaries and conduct affairs of the state. Five years later, her father was slain—shot by his own spy chief after 18 years of iron-fist rule that enabled Korea’s economic development at the expense of democratic progress.

Park disappeared from public view for years, but reemerged in 1998 as a candidate for Parliament—the first of her many political wins. The unmarried Park, who has often said that she married the country, went on to build a reputation as a principled and tough-minded politician, eventually leading her own party to victory. “Park’s first few weeks have been rather bumpy,” says Choi Jin, director of the Institute of Presidential Leadership in Seoul. “But she will somehow muster her strength and strike back.”

That could be a powerful message to risk takers in Pyongyang and her opponents in Seoul.