Woman hopes to make history as leader of South Korea

SEOUL — 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 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, are struggling to raise families and pursue careers, or are discouraged by the tiny number of women who rise to the top of the society’s most prestigious jobs.

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‘‘Unless you are a second-generation female family member of a chaebol, 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.’’

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.

‘‘Park’s win as a woman would be a huge story,’’ said Victor Cha, a former senior Asia adviser in the George W. Bush administration. ‘‘Korea is unfortunately still one of those corporate societies where young and able women would much prefer to work in Singapore or Hong Kong over Korea because of the chauvinism that still exists there.’’

Forecasts call for a tight race on Wednesday between Park and her opponent 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.

In 2008, South Korean women earned 39 percent less than South Korean men, the largest gap among the 26 member countries of the organization. The US 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 as 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. Everyone else needs policies aimed at making sure they make the same as men doing similar work.

Park said statistics show that women in South Korea are more likely to work in jobs where job security is weak — for example, day care, small stores, and companies with five or fewer workers.


Like other women who have risen to the top of politics in South Asia, Park is the daughter of a well-known, still deeply divisive former leader — the late dictator President Park Chung Hee. She has been a public figure since she was a girl growing up in the presidential Blue House. Supporters see a strong, determined woman who has long thrived in South Korea’s rough political world.