Updated Tuesday, December 18, 2012 at 06:05 AM
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye heads into Wednesday’s election under the weight of history. Not only is she the daughter of a dictator who ruled with ruthless efficiency for 18 years, but she’s trying to win power in a country still dominated by men.
No Korean woman is believed to have ruled since Queen Jinseong more than a millennium ago.
As president, Park would have to face North Korean belligerence — most recently shown in a provocative rocket launch last week — and growing worries about jobs, a rapidly aging population, plummeting birthrate and the role of big business.
But many would also expect action on a host of problems that beset women: Many are paid less than men doing the same work; many are trapped in low-paying jobs, despite first-class educations; many are struggling to raise families and pursue careers; many are discouraged by the tiny number of women who rise to the top of the most prestigious jobs.
“Unless you are a second-generation female family member of a chaebol (large corporate group), there is almost no case of a woman being named a company’s chief executive,” said Sim Yeo-lynn, a 31-year-old female business owner, referring to South Korea’s family-controlled industrial groups. “If we have a female president, a female CEO will not seem strange.”
The race, now neck and neck, pits Park Geun-hye, the candidate of President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative Saenuri Party, against Moon Jae-in, who represents the liberal Democratic United Party.
South Koreans are proud of their vibrant economy and democracy, and opportunities for women are improving. There are growing numbers of female diplomats, lawyers, doctors and college graduates. But women here also acknowledge entrenched sexism.
Forecasts call for a tight race on Wednesday between Park and Moon Jae-in.
South Korea has the widest income gap between men and women among developed countries, according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.
A South Korean’s average annual income jumped 2.5 times between 1992 and 2008, but the gender income gap hasn’t narrowed much. In 2008, South Korean women earned 39 percent less than South Korean men, the largest gap among 26 OECD member countries. The U.S. gender income gap was 20 percent.
A female president would have to help both the large number of women who make far less than men doing the same work, and the so-called “alpha girls,” a smaller group who are as well-educated and well-paid as men, said Park Seon-young, chief women’s rights researcher at the state-funded Korean Women’s Development Institute in Seoul.
The “alpha girls” need policies that would help them raise children more easily while they continue to work. Statistics show women in South Korea are more likely stuck in jobs where job security is weak — for example, day care, small stores and companies with five or fewer workers.
The fact that Park has no children and has never been married, however, has been attacked during the campaign.
“Park did not live a life with worries about birth, child care, education and commodity prices,” Jung Sung-ho, a spokesman for Moon, said in comments that Park’s camp and others condemned. “There is no ‘femininity’ in candidate Park.”
Being unmarried and not having kids could make it harder for many South Korean women to identify with her.
Park’s political base is an older generation of conservative voters who respect her father’s firm economic guidance and staunch opposition to a belligerent North Korea.
But the prospect of a woman leading South Korea has also won her younger admirers.
Some criticize the other side of her father’s legacy — widespread claims of torture and execution of opponents and the scrapping of the constitution to give him dictatorial powers.
Park is “typical of the imperial leadership of a bygone era,” said Lee Jung-hee, a former presidential candidate from a small opposition party — and a woman — during a recent debate. “We need a female president, but we can’t have a queen.”
The Associated Press
South Korea's Park Geun-hye campaigns Monday before Wednesday’s presidential election. No Korean woman is believed to have ruled in more than a millennium.