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South Korea's first female president intimidated? Yeah, right

From Sheena McKenzie, for CNN, and Paula Hancocks, CNN
updated 12:46 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meet Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president
  • Daughter of former president flung into spotlight after parents assassinated
  • Elected in a country with one of the world's highest levels of gender inequality
  • Shares a border with aggressive North Korea

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- What kind of politician is slashed in the face with a knife, and upon waking up in hospital the first thing they ask about is the election campaign?

Answer: Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president, and a woman who has experienced her fair share of violence while working -- and growing up -- in government.

Park was left with an 11 centimeter wound across her cheek after she was attacked by a man at a political rally in 2006. Her apparently businesslike response after waking from surgery -- "How is Daejeon?" -- referring to the party's campaign in that city, earned her the nickname "Queen of Elections."

The moniker finally held true in December 2012, when Park was elected president of a country which hasn't had a female ruler in over 1000 years -- not since Queen Jinseong in the 9th century.

South Korea's first female president has had her fair share of heartache.
Getty Images

This is a place with one of the highest levels of gender inequality in the world -- rated 111 worst out of 135 nations, by the World Economic Forum.

Indeed, if you're a working woman, South Korea is the worst developed country on the planet to live in, according to the Economist's Glass-ceiling Index.

I can say my greatest mentor is the citizens of this country
Park Geun-hye

All of which makes Park's position particularly remarkable. But then, perhaps it's no surprise the 62-year-old should pursue the country's top job, given her upbringing.

Her father was military hardman Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea from 1961 to his death in 1979 -- when his own intelligence chief shot him over dinner.

The murder came five years after his wife, and Park Geun-hye's mother, was also killed by an assassin who had been targeting her husband.

And so at the age of 22, Park Geun-hye was forced to take on the role of first lady, accompanying her father to official events and even welcoming U.S. President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn to the country in 1979.

A toast to leading ladies: Park Geun-Hye and Britain's Queen Elizabeth.
Getty Images

Almost two decades later, Park, who holds a degree electronic engineering, entered politics of her own accord, and is known for her straight-talking style.

She is said to be an intensely private woman who has never married and mostly dines alone. The nation is her family, she likes to say.

With the sudden passing of my mother, heavy responsibilities and duties of the first lady were suddenly forced upon me
Park Geun-hye

With North Korea on her doorstep -- a country which the U.N. recently denounced for human rights abuses "comparable to Nazi-era atrocities" -- there is now even greater international focus on Park's leadership.

She spoke to CNN's Leading Women about her vision for the fourth-largest economy in Asia, and the personal tragedies which forced her into the public spotlight from an early age.

"I believe the very fact that I was elected as the first female president of the Republic of Korea is testament to the dynamism of Korean society. I feel an even greater sense of responsibility as president. I also feel that we can look forward to greater opportunities that enable women to fully tap into their potential and live out their dreams, given the dynamism of our society and the way the entire world is headed."

"This is a time when we see fathers, especially young fathers, who would be more than willing to play their part in raising children and who are so willing to help their wives. We see many young fathers who would find great reward, pleasure, and joy in raising their children."

A few months after being elected, Park visited the U.S. to mark 60 years of bilateral partnership.
Getty Images

"I can say my greatest mentor is the citizens of this country."

"When I was a child I longed to become a teacher and after I got into college I had hoped to be able to contribute to the industrialization of my country by being involved in for instance in research in science and technology. And that is why I subsequently chose my major in electronic engineering in college."

"With the sudden passing of my mother, heavy responsibilities and duties of the first lady were suddenly forced upon me. It was indeed an arduous task for me but I would say that my experience during those years continue to be very helpful to me even to this date."

"After both of my parents passed away I lived a very normal life but then came the Asian economic crisis that buffeted South Korea in the late 1990s. I was shocked to see what was transpiring in the country and I couldn't just sit idly back knowing how much it took to build up this country and to see this country being engulfed in crisis and to see our people suffer so much. That's why I decided to take up politics."

Watch: South Korea's president talks economy

See: Park Geun-Hye on North Korea

Learn: South Korea's hopes for new president

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