SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Park Geun-hye, daughter of a divisive military strongman from South Korea's authoritarian era, was elected the country's first female president Wednesday, a landmark win that could mean a new drive to start talks with rival North Korea.
After five years of high tension under unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak, Park has vowed to pursue engagement and send greater aid to North Korea, despite a widely condemned long-range rocket launch last week. Pyongyang's state media, however, has repeatedly questioned the sincerity of her North Korea policy since she and Lee are from the same conservative party.
Huge crowds lined up throughout the day, braving frigid weather to choose between Park and liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, the son of North Korean refugees. Both candidates steered away from Lee's policies, including, most strikingly, his hard-line stance on North Korea.
Turnout was the highest in 15 years, and some analysts thought that might lift Moon, who is more popular with younger voters. Despite moving to the center, however, Park was carried by her conservative base of mainly older voters who remember with fondness what they see as the firm economic and security guidance of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as dictator for 18 years until his intelligence chief killed him during a drinking party in 1979.
Ties between the Koreas plummeted during Lee's term. Many voters link Lee's tough North Korea policy to nuclear and missile tests — including a rocket launch last week by Pyongyang that outsiders call a cover for a banned long-range missile test. Some also say ragged North-South relations led to two attacks blamed on Pyongyang that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
North Korea forced itself as an issue in the closing days of campaigning with the rocket launch, although many voters said they cared more about economic worries.