Ms Park could be a first for South Korea...and East Asia

Many countries in South and South East Asia have been run by females as head of state or head of government, among them India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand, but no woman has been in charge, other than fleetingly, of a country in East Asia.

Park Geun-hye (centre) has launched a bid to become the first woman to lead South Korea.
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BEIJING // If Park Geun-hye succeeds in being elected South Korean president this year, she should have few difficulties settling in to the presidential residence, the Blue House.

The 60-year-old political veteran, who declared last week she was seeking the presidency, has plenty of experience of South Korea's most auspicious address, since she is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a military leader who spent 16 years as president until his assassination in 1979.

Yet while Ms Park's return to the presidential residence might appear fitting, it could also be seen as breaking the mould.

Many countries in South and South East Asia have been run by females as head of state or head of government, among them India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand, but no woman has been in charge, other than fleetingly, of a country in East Asia, a region that encompasses China, Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Mongolia and contains more than a fifth of the world's population.

Nyam-Osoryn Tuyaa's stint as acting prime minister of Mongolia in 1999 lasted just eight days, while Soong Ching-ling, technically the head of state of China for periods during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, was far from being the country's most powerful individual.

Ms Park's election would therefore represent a first, which is perhaps surprising given that several East Asian nations are far more developed than many of the Asian states that have already been run by women. Several factors help explain the modest success of women in East Asian politics, according to Chung Chin-sung, a sociology professor at Seoul National University, affiliated to the institute of gender research.

The colonial history in South and South East Asian countries accounts for "earlier western influence" that may have helped lessen gender barriers, she said.

She said East Asian nations have lacked such strong outside influence and instead remain heavily shaped by Confucianism, the philosophy developed by Confucius 2,500 years ago.

Described by Ms Chung as having a "strong patriarchal tendency", Confucianism has been particularly influential in China, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan and Japan.

"We have a Confucian tradition in East Asian countries, so accordingly women could not have good opportunities for education, and there's been an atmosphere that if women were visible in society, people do not think it's a good sign," she said.

In the Philippines, 22.9 per cent of parliamentarians are women, while in Pakistan the figure is 22.5 per cent. The figures in Japan and South Korea are both slightly less than half these figures. Only one member of China's 24-strong politburo is female.

It is not just in politics that female representation at high levels in East Asia has been modest. In major Japanese and South Korean companies, the number of women at senior levels is "pretty small", said Jim Hoare, a former British diplomat who has served in China and North and South Korea, and is now a research associate at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

While their representation in the workforce can be high, "they don't necessarily make the top jobs", although he cautioned this was also seen in the West.

Ms Park's prospects in December's presidential election look bright, as she is thought likely to secure the nomination for South Korea's ruling Saenuri party, something she failed to do in 2007 when she lost to Lee Myung-bak, who went on to become president.

A member of the National Assembly since 1998, Ms Park is a shrewd political operator known as the "queen of elections" thanks to her successes between 2004 and 2006 while chairwoman of the Grand National Party, the predecessor to the Saenuri Party.

Economically she is a right-winger, although in recent years her position on welfare issues has softened and if elected she has said her priorites will be reducing inequality and improving ties with North Korea.

This time, her most formidable opponent comes from outside the party in the form of Ahn Cheol-soo, 50, a businessman and academic, although his popularity ratings trail Ms Park's.

Should her victory happen, it would come less than 12 months after another East Asian country came close to electing a woman leader, with Tsai Ing-wen losing January's presidential election in Taiwan to the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou, by less than six per cent of the vote.

Her privileged background as the daughter of a former leader - a feature in common with several other woman who have taken high office in South and South East Asia - also sets her apart. Yet Ms Chung acknowledges Ms Park's election would represent "a starting point".

"We can expect, in the longer term, more women, even very ordinary women, to compete with ordinary men," she said.