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Is South Korea ready for 'Madam President'?

??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.

SEOUL // 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, Ms Park says she took to politics to help save her country from the devastating Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

Ms Park, 60, is the daughter of the 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 Wednesday's vote.

"Candidate Park has no femininity. She has never lived a life agonising over child birth, 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 per cent less than men, the largest gap in the Organisation 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 because the country's seniority-based pay system.

But Ms 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.

In the long-term, the failure to address the role of women in the labour force could hamper growth.

Her offer of free state nursery care until 10pm to help working families would appear to exacerbate Korea's long-hours culture, while providing free university education for a third child is not an issue for most people in a country with the lowest birth rate in the OECD, of just over one per woman of childbearing age.

According to a study by management consultants McKinsey, if South Korea wants to break into the top 10 in the OECD in terms of income per capita, it will need to create another three million jobs, of which 1.2 million will be for professionals.

With no room to expand male graduate employment, the country needs to transform the way in which women are treated in the labour market, McKinsey said.

"She needs more reformative policies. For example, policy tools that guarantee the same number of men and women in the cabinet or the same wages for men and women," said Kim Eun-ju, head of the Centre for Korean Women and Politics.

Mr Kim's centre and the Women's News newspaper recently published a scorecard on the main presidential contenders' policies on jobs and rights for women and found that Ms Park's male opponent, Mr Moon, scored better.

A campaign song based on a hit compared her policies with a woman's "S-line", slang for a woman's curves, and played the lyric "Park Geun-hye is killing it", referring to her sex appeal.

Her New Frontier Party pulled the song after complaints it was demeaning to women but missteps like that have contributed to weak poll ratings among women in their 20s and 30s.

"Just the fact that she is biologically a woman isn't convincing enough," said Ma Ji-hye, 25, a female college student in Seoul.

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