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Woman candidate leads S. Korea's presidential race

South Korea's ruling conservatives have nominated Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a dictator slain in 1979, to become the nation's first woman leader. She amassed 84 percent against four inner-party male candidates.

Park, a veteran politician aged 60, is seeking to replace President Myung-Bak, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a second five-year term in a presidential election due on December 19.

Current surveys show Park ahead of any declared liberal opponent by double digits. In parliamentary elections last April, her New Frontier Party (NFP) scored an upset win over the newly formed opposition Democratic United Party (DUP).

Biography marred by violence

The French-educated Park was nine when he father Park Chung-Hee was shot dead by his disgruntled spy chief at a private dinner in 1979.

His term, which began in 1961, saw South Korea transform from a poor, war-damaged nation into an economic juggernaut but with human rights abuses.

Park's mother had been killed in 1974 by pro-North Korean gunman who was aiming for her father. Park herself survived a knife-wielding assailant's attack in 2006.

Father legacy controversial

Portrait photo of Park Chung-hee taken in 1970

Park's father seized power in 1961

Park, who recently said "history will decide" whether her father's intervention was a coup or a revolution, told her NFP congress near Seoul on Monday that she wanted greater economic equality for Koreans.

"We will make sure that small and medium companies and big corporations can coexist. We'll make sure the economically weak are given a fair chance," she said.

In recent years the poor-rich gap has widened in South Korea with opinion polls showing younger voters disillusioned by the lack of permanent job opportunities and high youth unemployment.

At the congress, Park also warned that she would not tolerate "any action that threatens our sovereignty."

She cited North Korean "provocations and nuclear threats" as well as territorial disputes with other countries, an apparent reference to the row with Japan over ownership of islands in the Sea of Japan (East Sea).

Her remarks coincided with the start of South Korean-United States joint military exercises near Seoul involving computer-assisted simulation techniques. The two Koreas remain technically at war after a 1953 armistice.

Thatcher, Merkel as role models

In 2007, Park challenged Lee unsuccessfully for the then-presidential nomination by dubbing her policies "Korean Thatcherism," a reference to the free-market former British premier.

Close up of Moon Jae-in, an opposition presidential prospect

The opposition's Moon Jae-in is trailing far behind in surveys

Aides say Park has since styled herself using German Chancellor Angela Merkel as her role model.

Park ahead in surveys

One survey, in Monday's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, gave Park 38.8 percent support, followed by 27.1 percent for software mogul Ahn Cheol-Soo. He is an independent who has not officially declared his candidacy.

Moon Jae-In, the likely candidate of the left-leaning main opposition Democratic United Party, was third at 8.6 percent. Moon, who is a civil rights lawyer, was jailed in 1975 for joining street protests against Park's father.

In June Moon told supporters: "A small number of rich people and large conglomerates have warehouses that are full of gold, but most ordinary people go to bed every day fretting over employment, housing, jobs, health and old age."

ipj/mz (AFP, Reuters, dpa)