History's Child

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Hein-kuhn Oh for TIME

"I know how fleeting and, at times, harrowing political power can be," says Park Geun-hye

It's a chilly November evening in the South Korean city of Kwangju, and a mostly middle-aged group — the men in baseball caps, the women with perms — are at the train station awaiting their idol: 60-year-old presidential contender Park Geun-hye. Suddenly, the unmistakable riff of "Gangnam Style" throbs through the twilight. Wearing the crimson of Park's ruling Saenuri Party, four young women in short shorts, knee-highs and cropped jackets bound across the platform. As they perform the riding and lassoing moves of the song's trademark dance, many in the crowd look stunned, as if they have never viewed the most watched video on YouTube or heard the song that has become globally synonymous with South Korea.

The spectacle at the station was the opening act for Park's Kwangju campaign stop, but it seemed out of sync with the occasion. "Gangnam Style" reflects a young, exuberant and irreverent South Korea. Park's supporters — older and conservative in outlook — don't quite fit that picture. Neither, for that matter, does Park. On the hustings, while she bows politely and graciously shakes hands with long lines of well-wishers, she comes across as earnest and stoic. At rallies and press conferences, she tends to stick to script. Cold, not cool, say her critics, who, perhaps unfairly, call her the "ice queen."

Park should be comfortable with people. As the eldest child of Park Chung-hee, the strongman who ruled South Korea for 18 years, she has long been in the public eye. Polls have her holding a narrow but stubborn lead over her main rival, 59-year-old Moon Jae-in. Moon was a student activist and later a human-rights lawyer, and he belongs to the left-leaning, opposition Democratic United Party, so younger voters in particular see him as a liberal who could challenge the Establishment. Though the front runner, Park seems aware that she needs to jazz up her image and broaden her appeal beyond the older set — to get some Gangnam style of her own. In Kwangju she starts her speech with an entreaty: "Help me start a new era."

South Korea will start a new era in at least one respect should Park win the Dec. 19 election. In a land dominated by gray men in dark suits, a Park presidency would be the first time a woman has occupied the highest office. (South Korea ranked 108th in the World Economic Forum's 2012 gender-gap rankings — sandwiched between the United Arab Emirates at 107 and Kuwait at 109.) Even if Park loses, her nation's history will record her as the first female contender for President.

Park is also trying to change her party. Saenuri is identified with Big Business and the Establishment; Park wants to recast the party as the champion of the reforms that many South Koreans feel the country needs, even if some conservatives resist. In recent weeks she has struck a populist tone, promising to stick up for small-business owners and low-income families. Some think she is undergoing a makeover simply to be elected. "Her longtime identity as a conservative candidate and her new identity as a candidate of change are clashing," says Jeong Han-wool, a public-opinion expert at the Seoul-based East Asia Institute. But Park vows she is for real. In written responses to TIME, she says, "If a politician makes a promise, it should be kept."

The Ballad of South Korea
It matters who leads South Korea. In the 1960s, Park's father pioneered one of history's great economic turnarounds, picking industries to export the country out of poverty. The model was adopted by other Asian nations, leading to the region's economic miracle. Today, South Korea is the world's 11th biggest economy; real GDP growth, according to HSBC research, is projected to be 3.8% in 2013 — not superlative, but a figure most Western countries would envy. The politics are vigorous, as are South Korea's top companies, which have a global footprint. When it comes to soft power — from Samsung phones to glossy K-pop — South Korea has supplanted Japan as East Asia's leading force.

But South Korea also has entrenched problems, both geopolitical and domestic. Externally, the country, which hosts U.S. military bases, isn't in a friendly neighborhood. It's surrounded by rogue state North Korea (apparently planning yet another rocket launch), old enemy Japan, with which it's locked in a bitter dispute over the sovereignty of a few islets, and the dragon in the room, China, a big market but also a big rival for resources and influence. Internally, the economy needs to be weaned off its overreliance on a handful of conglomerates or chaebol, whose internal businesses feed one another. South Koreans can easily wake up in an apartment built by a Samsung subsidiary, check their schedules on a Samsung phone or tablet, throw on a Samsung jacket and drive a Renault Samsung car to the Samsung Medical Center.

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