SEOUL, South Korea - Park Geun Hye was elected president of South Korea on Wednesday, becoming the first woman to lead Asia's fourth-biggest economy more than 30 years after her father's reign as dictator ended with his assassination.

Park, 60, of the ruling New Frontier Party, defeated main opposition candidate Moon Jae In, 51.6 percent to 48 percent, the National Election Commission said on its website.

The never-married daughter of the nation's longest-serving dictator will lead a country with one of the world's most entrenched gender gaps. She must confront a slowing economy, widening income disparity, and reengagement with North Korea after the totalitarian state's rocket launch last week.

"Park's victory is historically symbolic," said Lee Nae Young, a political science professor at Korea University in Seoul. "Voters decided she will offer the most stable leadership to navigate the country through a global recession, and mounting internal and external uncertainties, especially in foreign affairs and national security."

Park will take office Feb. 25, when President Lee Myung Bak's five-year term ends.

"This is your victory," she told a crowd in Seoul. "You've opened a new era and I will carry your trust deeply in my heart."

Moon told his supporters, "I can't apologize enough."

The result means the New Frontier Party retains the presidential Blue House, overcoming widespread dissatisfaction with Lee. The departing leader's popularity plummeted as he failed to live up to pledges to set the economy on a path to the 7 percent annual growth needed to increase per capita income to $40,000 by 2017.

South Korea's economy is forecast to grow 2.4 percent this year, the slowest pace since 2009. Park pledged to raise wages, increase welfare spending, and rein in the influence of the family-owned conglomerates such as Samsung Group and Hyundai Motor Co.

Park faced questions of whether as an unmarried, childless woman she could relate to the problems of working women. She said her family was the nation.

South Korea ranks 108th among 135 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Report and is 116th in economic participation and opportunity for women.

The election had historical resonance as Moon was imprisoned in 1975 for leading student protests against Park's father. Park Chung Hee led South Korea for 18 years, spurring growth in steel, shipping, and automobile manufacturing by sponsoring the monopolies. He also used torture, censorship, and executions to crush dissent, and was assassinated by a bodyguard in 1979.

Park Geun Hye apologized in September to victims of her father's rule. She served as first lady for five years starting at age 22 when her mother was slain by a North Korean agent trying to kill her father.