She was also elected because she convinced South Korean voters that she could heal some of the scars of her father’s 18-year rule — a period of hypercharged economic growth, but also one in which dissenters were tortured, jailed and sometimes killed.
In a race that wasn’t decided until after several hours of vote counting, Park edged out former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, who conceded just before midnight local time. With the ballots counted Thursday morning, Park had received 51.6 percent of the total, compared with Moon’s 48 percent.
“I believe the nation’s passion to overcome crisis and revive the economy has brought this victory,” Park said during a late-night victory speech in downtown Seoul. “I will not forget your trust in me.”
The two leading candidates had proposed comparable policies, their major plans differing only in degree and projected cost. The race, instead, became a referendum on their backgrounds, with Park cast as the “princess” and Moon as the “common man,” said Hahm Sung-deuk, a political scientist at Korea University.
The debate about Park’s family legacy revealed a generational rift. Park received overwhelming support from those 50 and older. Moon garnered votes from those in their 20s and 30s. The two fought over the middle ground — those in their 40s who remember the frenzied student protests for democracy in the 1980s, but who now worry about the soaring cost of educating their children, as well as the shrinking job market those children will face when they graduate.
South Korea has the world’s 15th-largest economy, but its boom days are over, with just 2.4 percent growth predicted this year by the central bank. That is far below the 7 percent growth promised by current President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who five years ago laid out a raft of ambitious targets, none of them realized.
In Washington, President Obama congratulated Park on her victory and said he looked forward to working with her administration. The U.S.-South Korean alliance “serves as a linchpin of peace and security in the Asia Pacific,” he said, noting the two nations’ “deep economic, security, and people-to-people ties.”
Park will replace Lee in February to begin a single five-year term.
Conservative and liberal voters alike say the government must do more to help the people. South Korea spends the second least on welfare, as a percentage of gross domestic product, among industrialized countries. The income gap, though close to average for a first-world country, is widening. Park, on the campaign trail, has pledged to cut college tuition in half, expand state-sponsored child-care programs and provide full coverage for major diseases.