Updated at: 12/19/2012 9:36 AM
By FOSTER KLUG
(AP) SEOUL, South Korea - When Park Geun-hye last lived in the presidential Blue House more than 30 years ago, she was a young, stand-in first lady, serving after the assassination of her mother and before the killing of her dictator father.
After defeating Moon Jae-in in elections Wednesday, she will return to her childhood home as the first female president of a country where women continue to face widespread sexism, huge income gaps with men doing the same work and few opportunities to rise to the top in business, politics and other fields.
Her presidency will shatter the bias that women are less capable of thriving in male-oriented South Korean politics, said Lim Woo-youn, a researcher at the Chungcheongnam-do Women’s Policy Development Institute in central South Korea.
Her biggest challenge after she takes office in February, however, may be the still-fresh divisions that linger from the 18 years that her father, President Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea.
Many, including the older conservative voters who form her political base, see Park Chung-hee as a hero, the man whose strong hand guided the country from the devastation of the Korean War to an economic force that lifted millions from crushing poverty. His critics remember the brutal way he dealt with opponents to his unchecked rule, the claims of torture, execution and vote rigging.
"There’s still a sentiment that rejects Park Geun-hye" because of her father’s brutality, said Lee Cheol-hee, a political analyst and head of Dumon Political Strategy Institute, a think tank. Park must appear sincere when she tries to "heal the past" as president, Lee said. She needs to convince people that she’s sympathetic to the pain caused by her father’s rule.
Park, a legislator since 1998, laid out a fairly moderate platform in her campaign to replace unpopular President Lee Myung-bak, a member of her conservative party.
The 60-year-old has vowed to reach out to North Korea and ease the current government’s hard line, fight widespread government corruption, strengthen social welfare, help small companies, close growing gaps between rich and poor, ease heavy household debt and curb the power of big corporations so powerful they threaten to eclipse national laws.
But despite her history-making win and her efforts to forge her own path, many see in her only the embodiment of her father, who grabbed power in a 1961 coup and ruled with ruthless efficiency until his spy chief shot him dead at a 1979 drinking party.
Critics have long seized on what they see as Park’s queen-like aura in an attempt to link her with her father. Park herself points to the embodiment of female imperial rule, Elizabeth I of England, as her role model.
"We have known Park Geun-hye as an imperial candidate, and no one can argue with her decisions," said Yoon Yeo-joon, a key member of the camp of her liberal opponent, Moon Jae-in.
Much of Park’s public persona has been built on her close association with her father’s rule. She has created an image as a selfless daughter of Korea, never married, who served first her father as his first lady and then the people as a female lawmaker in South Korea’s tough political world.
Her website describes a young Park losing sleep in the Blue House and praying for rain during a devastating drought. Even her choice of college major _ electronic engineering, which the website describes as "rare for women" _ is put down to self-sacrifice, an effort to help the country increase exports by concentrating on developing electronic industries.
Her "dreams of living a normal life" were crushed on Aug. 15, 1974, she says, when a Korean resident of Japan, claiming orders from North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, shot and killed her mother in a botched assassination attempt against her father. At 22, she rushed home from Paris, where she was studying, and for the next five years stood by her father’s side as acting first lady.
Violence came again in 1979 when her father was murdered. Park was said to have thought first of Korea: "Is the frontline well?" were her first words when learning of the shooting, according to her website, recognition that instability in Seoul could mean trouble on the Koreas’ tense border.
She was a major figure in conservative politics in 2006 when a convicted criminal slashed her face as she was shaking hands with voters, opening up a gash that needed 60 stitches during surgery.
Park lost narrowly in the 2007 presidential primaries to Lee.
Her father was a staunch anti-communist, but Park has shown a willingness to work with North Korea. She met privately with former leader Kim Jong Il during a visit to Pyongyang in 2002 and has vowed to ease Lee’s hard-line policy to Pyongyang.
That might be difficult, however, with a belligerent Pyongyang fresh off the surprising success of a rocket launch that the South, the United States and others say was a cover for testing long-range missile technology. North Korea’s state media has repeatedly said that her presidential ambitions are an attempt to bring back her father’s dictatorship.
Associated Press writers Sam Kim and Youkyung Lee contributed to this report. Follow Klug on Twitter: (at)APklug.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)