(SEOUL, South Korea) — South Korea has made history by electing a female president for the first time. In a hard-fought race, conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-Hye won with 51.6 percent of the vote over left-leaning opposition candidate Moon Jae-In.
“The people opened this new era,” Park said at a celebration in Seoul. “I will open an era of happiness where everyone’s dreams come true.”
Voter turnout was the highest in 15 years. About 76 percent of eligible voters went to the polls Wednesday, a higher than expected number given the freezing temperature. Park will replace outgoing President Lee Myung-bak on Feb. 15, 2013, when he steps down after five years.
This election focused predominantly on economic and social welfare issues, and showed a sharp generational divide. Younger voters favored the left-leaning Moon, whereas the older voters preferred Park’s conservative policy that emphasized stability.
Park, 60, has been nicknamed the “ice queen” for her stoic pose and tendency to stick to her principles. She has been part of South Korea’s public history from her childhood. Her father Gen. Park Chung-Hee seized power in a 1961 military coup. Until his assassination in 1979 by his own intelligence chief, he ruled with an iron fist. South Koreans credit him for laying the foundations of Korea’s economic development following the Korean War.
Park’s mother, Yuk Young-Soo, died when Park was 22, murdered by a North Korean agent in a failed attempt to kill the president. Park then carried out her mother’s duties for five years as the de facto first lady of South Korea.
Never married, Park has spent her life in politics, serving in the National Assembly for five terms, or 20 years.
“As you know, I have no family,” Park said in a speech on Tuesday. “The people are my family.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Susan Scutti, CNN
Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN