Park Geun-Hye has been under increasing pressure to clarify her position on her father's 1961-79 rule
The ruling party candidate in South Korea's presidential election offered her "sincere apologies" on Monday to victims of the repressive rule of her late father, military strongman Park Chung-Hee.
"I believe that it is an unchanging value of democracy that ends cannot justify the means in politics," Park Geun-Hye said in a 10-minute speech to reporters broadcast live from her conservative New Frontier Party headquarters.
Park's campaign to become South Korea's first woman president has been plagued by repeated demands to clarify her stance on the excesses of her father's 18-year rule -- a deeply divisive and emotive topic for many Koreans.
Her previously ambiguous responses have eaten away at the 60-year-old's significant opinion poll lead over her two left-leaning rivals in the December 19 ballot -- Moon Jae-In and Ahn Cheol-Soo.
Monday's speech had been promoted by her campaign team as an effort to finally set the record straight on her father, who seized power in a 1961 military coup and ruled with an iron hand until his assassination in 1979.
Declining to take questions, Park offered her "sincere apologies to those who suffered and were wounded during this period, and to their families."
Park Chung-Hee is credited with laying the foundations for South Korea's economic rise, and admirers say his autocratic style was justified by the poverty, security issues and social divisions existing after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Critics paint him as a brutal dictator who ruthlessly crushed any opposition and set back the country's democratic development with a security apparatus that employed torture, false imprisonment and extra-judicial execution.
In her comments on Monday, Park Geun-Hye sought to balance the two sides, stressing the special circumstances her father faced while apologising for the excesses that ensued.
"For my father, economic growth and national security were the two most pressing issues for the country," she said.
"Behind the stellar growth were sacrifices by workers who suffered under a repressive labour environment.
"Behind the efforts for national security to protect (ourselves) from North Korea were human rights abuses committed by state power," she said.
Acknowledging that the sweeping powers her father accumulated by amending the constitution had "delayed political progress", Park vowed to "heal the wounds" of the past and to meet the victims of her father's regime.
"Now is time for us to turn hatred to tolerance, division to integration and the past to the future," she said.
Park's presidential rival, Ahn Cheol-Soo, a software tycoon running as an independent, welcomed her public act of contrition.
"It must have been really difficult to do that, but she did what was really necessary," Ahn said.
But the wife of a man executed in the 1970s after being falsely accused of trying to foment a Communist uprising, was less forgiving.
"She should have made these remarks from the outset," the woman, who declined to be identified, told the Yonhap news agency.
"Now it looks as if she is just bowing to pressure and taking steps to extricate herself from a difficult situation," she said.