Is South Korea ready for 'Madam President'?

Park geun hye at the centre

If Park Geun-hye wins South Korea's presidential election this month, as looks increasingly likely, she will become the first woman to hold the country's top office, challenging stereotypes in a nation that is largely run by men in blue suits.

A conservative who has 15 years experience as a top legislator and who has been dubbed "The Queen of Elections" for turning around the fortunes of her political party in a series of polls, Park says she took to politics to help save her country from the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

Park, 60, is the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee and has never married or had children, something her opponents have sought to highlight in a bid to cut back her lead in the polls ahead of the December 19 vote.

"Candidate Park has no femininity. She has never lived a life agonizing over childbirth, childcare, education and grocery prices," Park Kwang-on, a spokesman for her left-of-centre opponent, Moon Jae-in, said recently.

While South Korea has risen from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War to become the world's 14th richest nation in a generation, and large numbers of women attend its top universities, it ranks just 108th out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum's 2012 index of gender equality.

As a whole, women earn 39 percent less than men, the largest gap in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) group of developed nations.

Just half of South Korean women with a university degree are in the workforce, in part because of policies that discriminate against mothers due to the country's seniority-based pay system.

But Park, at least according to the policies she has spelt out in her campaign, is not going to tackle these issues aggressively, or make a big difference to South Korean women, especially those who have to juggle work and children.

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