South Korea Has a Female President Now

Park Geun-hye was sworn in yesterday as the first female President of South Korea. The 61-year-old has said she's inspired by Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II, and, as CNN reports:

Throughout her campaign, Park used her gender in television campaign advertisements, signing off as "the prepared female president."

In a speech given yesterday, Park promised to try and keep South Korea safe, considering what the hell is going on in North Korea:

"North Korea's recent nuclear test is a challenge to the survival and future of the Korean people, and there should be no mistake that the biggest victim will be none other than North Korea itself," she said. "I urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions without delay and embark on the path to peace and shared development."

A few notable facts abut Park Geun-hye:

  • Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a a former Republic of Korea Army general and the dictator president of South Korea from 1961 to 1979. His reign ended when he was shot in the head by his intelligence chief.
  • Her mother was a devout Buddhist and popular first lady, known as "mother of the nation." She was shot and killed in 1974; the 23-year-old gunman was a North Korean sympathizer from Japan who was actually trying to kill the president.
  • Park Geun-hye's supporters are mostly older (over 50) people who remember her father fondly, as his economic policies "dragged the country out of poverty," as CNN's Paula Hancocks puts it.
  • Park Geun-hye won the election with 52% of the vote. Her opponent, Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer and activist, spent time in prison during the '70s. Guess why? He protested against the regime of Park's father, the dictator.
  • She's unmarried and has no children. (How long has it been since we elected an unmarried president in the U.S.???)

What her presidency means for women in a very male-dominated culture remains unclear, but as Seungsook Moon writes for CNN:

Park […] conforms to the recurring model of female political leader who is a daughter, a wife, or a sister of a powerful male leader. This reveals that high social status overrides female gender in many societies and especially in a patriarchal society.

Women politicians in such situation may conjure up a powerful illusion that women are also individuals (like men) with equal right to run for public offices at all levels. Their presence also reflects a popular sentiment for gender equality that has spread globally in recent decades. Yet such women politicians are more likely to be window dressing to garner public support than agents of progressive social change toward equality and empowerment of women and other social minorities.

Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea's first female president [CNN]
Why Madam president in South Korea may not be gender game changer [CNN]