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South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye waves as she holds a bouquet of flowers after arriving at the headquarters of the ruling Saenuri party in Seoul December 19, 2012. (Kim Jae-Hwan/REUTERS)
South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-Hye waves as she holds a bouquet of flowers after arriving at the headquarters of the ruling Saenuri party in Seoul December 19, 2012. (Kim Jae-Hwan/REUTERS)

The two Koreas are keeping it in the family Add to ...

The standoff on the Korean Peninsula just got a little more personal.

North Korea, of course, has been ruled by the Kim family dynasty for decades. And now South Koreans have elected the daughter of their own Cold War dictator to be their next president.

How the daughter of Park Chung-hee deals with the grandson of Kim Il-sung is just one of the subplots created by Park Geun-hye’s narrow win on Wednesday in South Korea’s closely fought presidential race, which came despite warnings from Pyongyang that electing Ms. Park would lead to a further worsening of relations.

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Ms. Park won about 51.6 per cent of the vote. Runner-up Moon Jae-in, a liberal human-rights lawyer, captured 48 per cent.

The 60-year-old Ms. Park is a breakthrough figure, the first female president of a country whose gender-equality record is among the worst in the world (South Korean women, on average, earn 39 per cent less than men).

But she also grew up in the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential residence. She was nine years old when her father seized power in a 1961 military coup, and she was 22 when her mother was assassinated by North Korean agents, making Ms. Park the de facto first lady. She left the Blue House in 1979 after her father was assassinated by his own intelligence chief.

She returns via a very different route to power than her father took, but she does so in large part because of lingering affection for Park Chung-hee among older South Koreans, who remember him as a strongman who kickstarted the country’s remarkable economic rise.

Ms. Park’s victory will not be celebrated in Pyongyang. Official North Korean media declared in advance that tensions would rise if the leader of the conservative Saenuri Party won the presidency. “Park Geun-hye and the group of the Saenuri Party [are] hell-bent on the desperate moves to escalate the confrontation,” read a Tuesday editorial in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper, which referred to Saenuri as “thrice-cursed” and “treacherous.”

The renewed animosity between the Park and Kim clans comes amid heightened anxiety around East Asia. Conservatives, led by the hawkish Shinzo Abe, were also voted to office in Japan on Sunday, amid a highly charged dispute with China over the ownership over five uninhabited islands that last week saw Japanese warplanes scrambled to intercept a Chinese government plane that entered Japanese-controlled airspace.

Beijing also provided political and diplomatic support to North Korea even as Pyongyang constructed a nuclear program in defiance of United Nations sanctions. Meanwhile, the United States, which already has tens of thousands of troops stationed in both Japan and South Korea, is moving more military assets to Asia to counterbalance China’s rise.

Ms. Park has actually proposed a more moderate policy toward North Korea than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, a fellow Saenuri member who was not eligible for re-election. She has opened the door to the possibility of renewed contacts and economic aid, but has also promised a tough response to any military provocation.

The generals around Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s twentysomething leader, likely remember her father’s rule as a time of frequent exchanges of fire across the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. The 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, but no peace agreement, and fighting flared up between 1966 and 1969 in what is sometimes referred to as the Second Korean War.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, said Pyongyang would likely seek to test Ms. Park’s mettle early in her presidency. “I think the North Koreans will wait for a while, but if they’re not getting what they want, they’ll stage a provocation.”

The goal would be to force South Korea and the United States to return to the bargaining table – the Kim regime craves aid money – but Prof. Lankov said that Ms. Park’s response to a military challenge would be unpredictable because “some of her advisers are knee-jerk anti-communists.”

The North Korea issue was actually secondary in the election race, which saw both Ms. Park and her rival Mr. Moon vow to expand the social safety net amid widespread concern that too many people are being left out of South Korea’s economic growth. Ms. Park will now be expected to deliver on expensive promises to expand free medical coverage and reduce university tuition.

“Korea is a very male-dominated society. We need a different touch, a woman’s touch,” said Talk Shin, a 56-year-old filmmaker who voted in central Seoul.

Many younger voters, however, were wary of Ms. Park’s unwillingness to fully renounce her father – she apologized to victims of his security services, but also described his 1961 coup as necessary. Voters under the age of 40 were more drawn to the 59-year-old Mr. Moon, the son of North Korean refugees who campaigned on twin themes: the need to combat growing inequality in the country, as well as rapprochement with Pyongyang.

Many of Mr. Moon’s supporters took photographs of themselves outside polling stations on Wednesday and posted the pictures to social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter in an effort to encourage other young people to vote. “Until last night I wasn’t sure if I was going to vote or not. I thought about it a lot and decided I can’t change things if I don’t vote,” said Anna Oh, a 26-year-old financial consultant who cast her ballot in central Seoul.

The once-wide gap between Ms. Park and Mr. Moon closed rapidly in the final weeks of the campaign, as two other contenders dropped out to back his candidacy.

The tight race resulted long lines outside many polling stations on Wednesday. Despite subzero temperatures, turnout among the 40 million eligible voters was reported at more than 75 per cent, the highest rate in 15 years.

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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