SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 19, 2012— -- South Korea has made history by electing a female president for the first time. In a hard-fought race, conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-Hye won with 51.6 percent of the vote over left-leaning opposition candidate Moon Jae-In. who scored 47.9 percent of the vote.
"The people opened this new era," said Park at a celebration here in Seoul. "I will open an era of happiness where everyone's dreams come true."
Voter turnout was the highest in 15 years. About 76 percent of eligible voters went to the polls Wednesday, a higher than expected number given the freezing temperatures. Park will replace outgoing President Lee Myung-bak on Feb. 15, 2013, when he steps down after five years.
This election focused predominantly on economic and social welfare issues, and showed a sharp generational divide. Younger voters favored the left-leaning Moon, whereas the older voters preferred Park's conservative policy that emphasized stability.
First Female Leader
Park, 60, has been nicknamed the "ice queen" for her stoic pose and tendency to stick to her principles. She has been part of South Korea's public history from her childhood. Her father, Gen. Park Chung-Hee, seized power in a 1961 military coup. Until his assassination in 1979 by his own intelligence chief, he ruled with an iron fist. But South Koreans credit him for laying the foundations of Korea's economic development following the Korean War.
Park's mother, Yuk Young-Soo, died when Park was 22, murdered by a North Korean agent in a failed attempt to kill the president. Park then carried out her mother's duties for five years as the de facto first lady of South Korea.
Never married, Park has spent her life in politics, serving in the National Assembly for five terms, or 20 years. "As you know, I have no family," Park said in a speech on Tuesday. "The people are my family."
Pressed by her opponents, she reluctantly apologized to the nation in September for her father's human rights abuses under his authoritarian rule.
Tight Race Against Moon
The election was a hard-fought race for a country deeply split along ideological and generational lines. Park's opponent, Moon Jae-In, 59, represented the Democratic United Party, had been a student activist and later a human rights lawyer. He was once imprisoned for opposing the authoritarian rule of Park's father, and later served as chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-Hyun. With his promises to challenge the establishment and push for strong social and economic reforms, including tighter regulations on the powerful conglomerates, Moon was largely supported by younger voters.
Both candidates favored stronger engagement with North Korea. But Park's stance was more in line with that of the United States, and called for economic assistance only, contingent, she said, on there being "an honest dialogue on issues of mutual concern" and on North Korea giving up its nuclear ambitions.