NATIONAL

[Newsmaker] Park Geun-hye: A life stranger than fiction

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Mar 10, 2017 - 12:28
  • Updated : Mar 12, 2017 - 14:28

When Park Geun-hye won a grueling presidential election in December 2012 in defiance of most exit polls, the outside world extolled her as East Asia’s first-ever female leader.

At home, however, expectations had not been high for her role in such tasks as empowering women and improving gender equality. Many South Koreans instead questioned whether she would manage to embrace not only her foes, but also the marginalized, as the daughter of a president whose 18-year dictatorial rule and subsequent murder led Park to a life of utter isolation.

With less than one year left in her five-year presidential term, the conservative leader became the country’s first president to be ousted from office by impeachment Friday.


Dictator’s daughter 

Park Chung-hee and Yuk Young-soo (Yonhap)

Park’s first public role came with the drama and immediacy that would define her life -- as a result of the assassination of her mother Yuk Young-soo, the wife of longtime strong man Park Chung-hee.

The death of Yuk by a bullet meant for her husband called for the then-22-year-old Park to take on the role of first lady. It was then that Park fostered a close relationship with Choi Tae-min, a cult leader who claimed to be a messenger sent by her deceased mother.

He also headed a volunteer corps intended to promote the Saemaul Undong, Park Chung-hee’s rural development movement, in which the younger Park also played a key executive role. She then began to develop ties with Choi’s daughter, Soon-sil, who chaired the organization’s student unit.

Following the assassination of her father in 1979, Park Geun-hye left Cheong Wa Dae, but kept the Chois close, joining them in running an educational foundation named after Yuk.

Her relationship with the elder Choi would become a source of lurid rumors that would haunt her throughout her career. And her friendship with Choi Soon-sil culminated in what now appears to be the worst political scandal in Korean history, rocking and tearing the nation in two.


‘Queen of elections’

(Yonhap)

Following her departure from the presidential palace, Park lived in seclusion for 18 years until she joined the Grand National Party -- the forerunner of the Liberty Korea Party. Park was elected to the parliament on the GNP’s ticket in 1998.

As a politician, she basked in solid support from voters nostalgic for her father, who despite his iron-fisted rule engineered a meteoric economic ascent dubbed “the Miracle on the Han River.”

Park quickly shot up the party ladder in the lead-up to and following a 2004 general election. She decided to relocate the party’s headquarters to a makeshift tent in a symbolic move to apologize for an illegal funding scandal, which was widely expected to be the nail in the coffin for the GNP at the polls.

Despite the crisis, she helped bring the GNP a surprising performance in the election, easily beating expectations by winning 121 of 299 parliament seats. That effort earned her the nickname “Queen of Elections.”

In the National Assembly, which now has 300 seats, the then-ruling Uri Party won a majority of 152. But it was rather underwhelming given prevailing predictions the party could end up snatching 200-plus seats on the back of strong public support due to the opposition’s failed impeachment efforts against then-President Roh Moo-hyun.


Rise to top, and fall from grace

In August 2012, Park became the flag-bearer for the Saenuri Party, the successor to the GNP, in the forthcoming presidential election.

Her campaign was struck by ceaseless questions from rivals about her past, chiefly her relationship with the self-proclaimed pastor Choi, who by that time had died. Aside from rumors about a supposed romantic affair, he faced a series of allegations that he illicitly accumulated wealth by taking advantage of his ties to the Park family.

But Park eventually secured the nation’s top job, defeating liberal candidate Moon Jae-in in a close race and becoming the first female president in Korean history in February 2013.

One of the worst incidents that plagued Park’s tenure was the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16, 2014. The tragedy left 304 dead or missing, and the botched rescue efforts spawned questions over her administration’s crisis management abilities as well as the back-scratching ties between the civic and public sectors. 

(Yonhap)

Her failure to face the public and adequately handle the disaster in the hours that followed the sinking, later dubbed “the missing seven hours,” became a subject of the prosecution’s investigation and eventually the impeachment trial.

Beyond the country’s borders, Park’s time in office has been marked by severely strained relations with North Korea, Japan and China.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who took power after his father’s death in late 2011, pressed ahead with more nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches than his father did throughout his 17-year reign. Brief moments of reconciliation aside, the two Koreas failed to manage to foster lasting peace, with the Park government having shut down a joint factory park in favor of sanctions and pressure as the centerpiece of its cross-border policy.

After pushing for a hard-line approach to Japan for years, Seoul abruptly clinched a settlement on the issue of Japan’s wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women in December 2015. It marked the culmination of 20 months of grueling negotiations, yet failed to satisfy many of the victims and the public, giving birth to another stringent diplomatic dispute.

Beijing, meanwhile, has ratcheted up its economic retaliation against Seoul in protest of its decision to install the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system on the Korean Peninsula, which China says could potentially target it. South Korea’s businesses, small and medium-sized ones in particular, have been paying a heavy price for a matter that the Park administration could well have forestalled in the first place.

Other controversial incidents during her tenure include the decision to disband the far-left Unified Progressive Party in 2014, the outbreak of the Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015 and the reinstatement of state-authored history textbooks in the same year. 

(Yonhap)

Then a scandal broke out turning the country upside down when it was revealed that Park’s civilian friend Choi Soon-sil had access to classified documents and is believed to have siphoned off public funds for her nonprofit foundations and personal gain.

The prosecution believes that Park conspired with Choi and her former aides. An independent counsel led by Park Young-soo concluded that Park was an accomplice to Choi in attempts to induce 43 billion won ($37.6 million) from Samsung Group alone, saying the two friends “shared economic interests.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (heeshin@heraldcorp.com)