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South Korea elects its first woman president

Park Geun-hye won the presidential race with 51.6 percent of the vote.

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

Park Geun-hye won the presidential race with 51.6 percent of the vote.

SEOUL — Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s longest-ruling dictator, was elected president Wednesday, the first woman to win the post.

Voters appeared to prefer stability and moderate leadership over her opponent’s calls for radical change in how the country addresses economic inequality and military threats from North Korea.

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With nearly 96 percent of the votes counted, according to the National Election Commission, Park had won 51.6 percent of the vote compared with 47.9 percent for Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who was once imprisoned for opposing the authoritarian rule of Park’s father. With her lead seen as insurmountable, Moon conceded defeat.

‘‘This is the victory of the people,’’ Park told her cheering supporters, who gathered in freezing weather in downtown Seoul. ‘‘This is a victory for the people’s wish to overcome crises and revive the economy.’’

The result will not be officially confirmed until Thursday.

The election of Park, 60, a five-term lawmaker and the candidate of President Lee Myung-bak’s governing Saenuri Party, is a milestone for a society that is still heavily male-dominated despite the inroads women have made in business and government in recent years.

Park was also the first child of a past president to hold the country’s highest office. The rule of her father, Park Chung-hee, from 1961 to 1979 left a legacy of economic vibrancy and political repression that still divides the country.

Under the incumbent, Lee, antiestablishment sentiment deepened in the country, especially among younger voters, as job opportunities dwindled, political corruption persisted, and tensions with North Korea intensified. But a majority of voters evidently did not see a solution to those problems in the opposition Democratic United Party, which is mired in infighting.

Critics say the party is too soft on North Korea and too radical in its plans to rein in the country’s huge family-controlled business conglomerates, whose unruly expansion in recent years is blamed for aggravating the gap between rich and poor, political analysts said.

Moon offered congratulations to Park and said, ‘‘I am sorry for those who supported me.’’

Throughout the campaign, Park, who has never married, said that her sex would be an asset in leading the nation in difficult times.

‘‘I have no family to take care of,’’ she said. ‘‘I have no child to inherit my properties. You, the people, are my only family, and to make you happy is the reason I do politics. And if elected, I would govern like a mother dedicated to her family.’’

For Park, her victory on her second try — she tried for her party’s nomination in 2007 but lost to Lee — redeemed her family’s tragic history.

Her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was killed by a Communist agent in 1974 when Park was 22 and a student in Paris; she abandoned her studies to return to Seoul and serve as acting first lady. Five years later, her father was assassinated by his disgruntled spy chief. Her reaction to the news was widely quoted: ‘‘Is everything all right along the border with North Korea?’’

After years out of public view as the country rapidly democratized and her father was vilified as a dictator, Park returned to political life in 1998 with a vow to ‘‘save the country,’’ which at the time was struggling with the Asian financial crisis. Voters who remembered her father’s charismatic leadership elected her to a seat in Parliament by a landslide margin.

She has since built a reputation as a principled and steely leader, rallying conservatives to unlikely victories even at times when it was steeped in corruption scandals. She cited the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth I as her role models.

‘‘She saved her country from the verge of bankruptcy and turned it into a nation where the sun never set,’’ Park said during a recent speech of the queen who ruled England from 1558 to 1603, whose loss of parents to tragedy she said she sympathized with. ‘‘Because she knew misfortune, she knew how to care for others.’’

When asked why she was not married, she often said she was ‘‘married’’ to the country.

‘‘Her image among her supporters is a stable leader, calm during crises, strong and dependable. To them, she is a woman yet not a woman,’’ said Choi Jin, head of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.

The issue of relations with North Korea was renewed in the closing days of campaigning when the North last week launched a long-range rocket, which put a satellite into orbit but was condemned by the United Nations and others as a cover for testing long-range missile technology.

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