SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Carrying a bouquet of flowers, South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye stepped forward to honor one of the martyrs in her country’s long struggle for democracy. A protester threw himself at her feet.
“How dare you come here?” the man shouted, sitting between Park and a statue of activist Chun Tae-il. Chun’s 1970 labor protest suicide is seen as an expression of dissent against the rule of Park’s father, the late president and longtime dictator Park Chung-hee.
As cameras flashed, Park Geun-hye stood with an awkward smile frozen on her face. Then she left.
That August confrontation sums up a huge challenge for Park as she attempts to become the country’s first female president and keep the government in conservative hands in the Dec. 19 election.
She has been in the public eye longer than either of her rivals and is a skilled political operator, but she is also hounded by her father’s complicated legacy, which continues to divide many South Koreans.
He is revered for steering South Korea to economic and diplomatic power with a hostile North Korea at its doorstep. And he is loathed for what rights groups call a long history of torture, unlawful executions and other abuses of power.
Park Chung-hee has been dead for more than 30 years, since his intelligence chief shot him down during a 1979 drinking party. But he has proven the biggest stumbling block to his daughter’s campaign.
In July she said her father’s 1961 coup was “the best choice in an unavoidable situation.” Critics slammed the statement as a defense of her father’s overthrow of a democratically elected government.
Some also saw later comments as an unwillingness to renounce a 1975 court ruling that handed death sentences or long prison terms to 23 people opposed to her father. The charges are widely seen as rigged, and the Supreme Court in 2007 cleared the eight who were executed, ruling their confessions came after torture.
She has since apologized to victims of her father’s authoritarian rule and has visited memorials to activists. Liberals, however, have called her efforts political theater and insist that she follow through on her pledge to “heal” victims’ pain.
Her conflicted feelings about her father “make up the soft underbelly of the conservatives’ campaign” to stay in power, said Tom Coyner, a business development consultant and an author who has written about South Korean political matters. “Her opponents already smell blood.”
Without her father’s looming specter, the 60-year-old Park would seem to be in a confident position.
She served five terms in the legislature and earned the nickname “Queen of Elections” for her ability to win tight races. She only narrowly lost in presidential primaries five years ago to current conservative President Lee Myung-bak, whose single term ends in February.
Many older South Koreans have fond memories of watching Park grow to womanhood in the presidential Blue House, first as a dutiful daughter and then, after an assassin killed her mother, as her father’s stand-in first lady.
She is running against two relatively new political faces. Independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo is a popular software magnate and former university professor with charisma but little political experience. Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in is a first-term lawmaker and former close aide to late President Roh Moo-hyun.
Polls show Park ahead in the three-way race, but some surveys show her trailing if Ahn and Moon settle on a single opposition candidate — a move that many expect.
Park’s inability to strike the right balance on her father is seen as one of the few things unifying a splintered opposition.
“She needs to convince people that she is almost on the same wavelength with them on the historical wrongdoings perpetrated by her father,” said Jun Kye-wan, a political commentator and head of a Seoul-based private political institute. “It’s difficult, but it lies at the core of doubts about her.”
Park must also consider the many who revere her father. They form her conservative support base. Many are in their 50s and older and remember her father’s strong hand as South Korea pulled itself up from wartime destruction.
“Young people don’t understand the many shivering nights of blackouts, cold and hunger,” said Jin Soo-chul, a 61-year-old retired businessman. “Had they lived through those times, they would feel differently about Park Chung-hee.”
Critics say South Korea’s economic gains under Park Chung-hee are dwarfed by his harsh abuse of opponents.
After a closer-than-expected victory in 1971 elections against a popular opposition candidate — future president and Nobel Peace laureate Kim Dae-jung — Park had the constitution scrapped, declared a state of emergency and seized unchecked power. Park maintained he was fighting communist plots.
As a politician, Park Geun-hye has created an image based partly on her devotion to father and country.
She was 22 when her mother was assassinated during a failed 1974 attack on her father; the killer claimed guidance from Pyongyang.
Park abandoned studies in France and began a five-year run as first lady, which her website says gave her “precious experiences in national management and history.”
In 1979, when an aide woke Park and told her of her father’s assassination, her reply, according to her website, was, “Is the front line well?” The implication is that, despite her grief, she immediately understood that perceived instability in Seoul could spur conflict on the Koreas’ tense shared border.
Although Park, who never married, has been well known in South Korea for decades, relatively little is known about her personal life. She reportedly said during her previous presidential run that she turned to breathing exercises and tennis when stressed, that she liked seasoned Korean vegetables and Chinese philosophy and that she had wanted to be a teacher as a girl. She recently mentioned Queen Elizabeth I as her role model.
She has a complex history with Pyongyang, which loathes her anti-communist father. But Park also traveled to Pyongyang in 2002 and met privately with then-leader Kim Jong Il.
In a recent poll by the Asan Institute think tank, Park was seen as the strongest candidate on dealing with North Korea. Still, unless tensions spike with Pyongyang in coming weeks, many observers see average South Koreans’ economic difficulties as the crucial issue.
The Asan poll found that Park was judged the strongest candidate in leadership skills and experience, but she ranked last in “ability to reform” and “ability to communicate with the people.”
Park has worked to showcase her long years of service and move past controversy over Park Chung-hee.
“Her father’s history of raising the country out of poverty and harshly cracking down on the opposition is both her light and her shade. She has basked in the light as a politician, but she is now struggling with the shade,” political commentator Jun Kye-wan said.
“It is her fate that she must overcome this dilemma to become president.”
AP writer Sam Kim contributed to this story from Seoul.