By Jack Kim and Ju-min Park
GOYANG, South Korea (Reuters) - South Korea's ruling conservatives picked Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the country's slain strongman, on Monday as their candidate for December's presidential polls, putting her on track to become the country's first woman leader.
Park, the daughter of Park Chung-hee who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979, won her New Frontier Party's presidential primary, easily beating four male candidates by winning 84 percent of the vote in the race to succeed fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak whose mandatory single term ends in February.
Smiling and clad in a blue shirt and black trousers, Park's win at her third attempt to become her party's candidate was greeted by the theme music from "Chariots of Fire" as she pledged greater economic equality.
"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," the 60-year old told cheering party members in her acceptance speech.
The gap between rich and poor in South Korea has widened in recent years, and opinion polls show younger voters have become disillusioned by the lack of permanent job opportunities.
Polls show Park is ahead of any of the declared liberal opponents by double digits and looks likely to return to the presidential Blue House 33 years after she left it in mourning for her assassinated father.
As well as promoting job security and welfare, Park has pledged to re-engage with North Korea and reward the impoverished and isolated state if Pyongyang shows it is serious about halting its race to obtain nuclear weapons.
She warned Pyongyang's new leadership that any attacks on South Korea would meet a strong response.
"I, Park Geun-hye, will not tolerate any action that damages our sovereignty or threatens our safety. We won't be content only with maintaining peace but we will work to establish a new framework for sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula and cooperation in North Asia," she said.
North Korea's young leader Kim Jong-un appears to be taking tentative steps to rebuild the country's shattered economy and has sought to attract more investment from China, the North's only major diplomatic and political ally, but has made several verbal attacks on South Korea.
In 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island, killing civilians for the first time since the Korean War, and it is widely believed to have sunk a South Korean naval vessel in the same year, though it denies that.
ENTERED POLITICS TO SAVE HER COUNTRY
For many older voters in the South, Park's name is a reminder of the steely military man who led the poverty-stricken country through rapid economic growth and banned political freedoms in the name of confronting threats from North Korea with which the South fought a war between 1950 and 1953.
Switching course from her failed presidential bid five years ago when she dubbed her policies "Korean Thatcherism" after the free-market former British prime minister, aides say Park has this time used German Chancellor Angela Merkel as her benchmark.
The lack of a serious challenger in the party primary has given her the freedom to send an inclusive message that embraced many of the same points advocated by the liberal opposition.
Park entered politics in her mid-40s to help "save" her country as it spiraled into economic turmoil at the height of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, and has had three stints as the leader of the conservatives, winning the accolade "Queen of Elections" for a series of comebacks for the party.
Despite decades in public life, including a stint as first lady after her mother was killed in 1974 by a bullet meant for her father, Park is intensely private. She has never married and lives in a grey house in a quiet Seoul neighborhood.
Park, who was 9 when her father took power in a coup, moved out of the imposing presidential palace in 1979 with her younger siblings, orphaned after their father was shot dead by his disgruntled spy chief at a drunken private dinner.
(Editing by David Chance and Daniel Magnowski)