SEOUL — Park Geun-hye, whose authoritarian father helped jump-start South Korea's rise from third-world poverty, was elected Wednesday night as president of a nation concerned about its slowing economy and mounting first-world social problems.
Park, 60, becomes an unlikely leader: She's the first female president in a nation dominated by men, and she's a conservative selected by voters to address their largely left-leaning wishes, including greater engagement with North Korea and a major expansion of government welfare spending.
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 six hours after polls closed. With 94 percent of all votes counted, according to Korea's National Election Commission, Park had received 51.6 percent of the votes, 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.
Koreans were divided on whether the daughter of a Cold War military ruler, somebody who jailed dissenters and rewrote the constitution in his favor, could prove a suitable leader for a 25-year-old democracy. The debate also revealed a generational rift. Park received the overwhelming support of 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.
Park will replace Lee in February to begin a single five-year term.