by Yoon Joung Lee
A survey conducted by Sisa Korean news magazine said Geun Hye Park is the second most influential political figure in the country behind President Myung-bak Lee. Geun Hye Park is a South Korean Politician and the daughter of South Korea’s controversial former President Chung Hee Park whose labels include dictator and economic reformer.
Under General Park’s iron-fist rule from 1963 to 1979, the economy in South Korea rapidly developed and South Korea even started to open a dialogue with North Korea. However, Park lost her mother in an assassination attempt against her father in 1974 and also lost her father by the head of the Korean CIA five years later. For five years until her father was assassinated, she was seen as the country’s unofficial first lady.
Geun Hye Park was born in 1952 in Daegu, South Korea as the oldest child out of three. Her younger brother, Ji-man Park, is the current CEO of EG Corporation in South Korea and her younger sister, Seo-yeong Park is the current executive director at Yookyoung Foundation. Park finished her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Sogang University in 1974, and received honorary doctoral degrees from Chinese Culture University in Taiwan in 1987, KAIST and Bukyung Univerisity in 2008 and Sogang University in 2010. She was also the chairwoman of the board of Yeungnam University from 1982 to 1991. She never married.
Although she avoided to going back to political scene after the death of her parents, she eventually re-entered in 1997 during the final stage of the presidential elections. In 1998, she was elected as congresswoman to the National Assembly after winning a by-election for the conservative Grand National Party in Daegu. During the 15th National Assembly, Park served on the Commerce, Industry and Energy Committee, and also served on the Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee and the Special Commission on Women’s Affairs during the 16th National Assembly. Two years later in 2000, she caught the public's attention as she was voted vice president for the opposition Grand National Party (GNP).
However, what really caught the media and public's attention was her criticizing GNP chair Hoe Chang Lee. She soon withdrew from GNP in 2002 and tried to attract GNP members to join her newly established party. However, she failed to persuade them and eventually returned back to the party in December shortly before presidential elections. In 2004, she was re-elected as chairwoman for a second term, and she was able to strengthen her position as the party's leading presidential candidate. For the first time in 30 years of South Korean politics, a woman was elected as the party's leader.
In 2006, while Park was helping her party to make significant growth and gains in local government, she was attacked by a 50-year old man who slashed her cheek with a knife during a street campaign rally for the elections for governors' and mayors' posts. She got a 10-centimeter wound on her face and taken to the hospital for hours of surgery with 60 stitches. However, the way she handled the situation and her fast return to campaign earned her the sympathy of many voters. With her high popularity, GNP won in these local elections. This favorable election gave Park a significant chance to become the first female presidential candidate. In 2006, Park stepped down as GNP-leader to prepare for presidential candidacy for 2007's election.
In 2007 presidential election, Park lost to Myung Bak Lee, the current president of South Korea, by a narrow margin. She won the 'party members bid,' but lost the 'national bid' covering more percentage of the presidential bid. After the election, President Lee formed his government with the people who he has a relationship with. To show the strong stance against it, many of Park's supporters left GNP and formed other parties like Pro-Park Alliance and Pro-Park Independents. GNP did not allow them to return to the party.
However, after Park's long-time claim that the supporters should be allowed back, most of Park's supporters are now back in GNP and there are about 60 supporters currently. Due to her aggressive stance against the Lee administration and the reduction of her activity in the election pivotal for GNP, her popularity has dropped recently and her approval rating after 2010 Korean municipal elections has also dropped to 25.1%.
In male-dominated Korean politics, womens' political influence is still limited to certain positions of representative character. However, Korean politics nowadays become more influenced by women politicians and Park is one of the women who is leading this movement.