South Korea Loses Its Princess and Gains an Opportunity
South Korean president Park Geun-hye's fall from grace is a modern-day Shakespearian tragedy.
The fall from grace of South Korean president Park Geun-hye, the offspring of arguably the most consequential president in South Korean history, reads like a Shakespearian tragedy. The unanimous decision of South Korea’s Constitutional Court to uphold the legislative impeachment and remove her from office is a stunning rebuke. For a woman who gave up everything in her personal life—husband, family, children—in order to pursue the political legacy of her murdered parents, the failure of her presidency must be a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
Two days after being removed from office, Park left the presidential Blue House mansion, which she first came to know as her family home when she was a nine-year-old child. The last time she departed the mansion was with her siblings in the fall of 1979, at the conclusion of a nine-day mourning period for her assassinated father. This time, the unceremonious departure has left an indelible stain on her life’s work. It must cut more deeply than the injury she received when a mentally unbalanced man attacked her during a 2006 legislative campaign, which left a slash mark on her face that required sixty stitches.
Never highly regarded by most of the younger generation of South Korean millennials, who dubbed her with the pejorative nickname of “gongju,” or princess, due to her family’s political connections, Park nonetheless drew the steadfast loyalty of a largely older generation of conservatives who remembered her father’s economic legacy of the “Miracle on the Han River.” Park’s fall from power, along with the February arrest of Samsung vice chairman (and heir to the Samsung fortune) Lee Jae-yong on corruption charges after he allegedly gave $36 million in bribes to a political confidante of President Park in return for political favors, indicates that a new day may be dawning in Seoul. The close-knit South Korean entanglement of politics and big business first constructed by Park’s father may slowly be becoming a thing of the past. What will replace this structure that produced both miraculous economic development and a sense of social inequality remains anyone’s guess.
I first encountered Park Geun-hye at the Blue House in June 1979, when I was the U.S. Embassy control officer for the banquet hosted by her father for visiting U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his delegation. Even then, as a young twenty-seven-year-old who had assumed the position of acting first lady after a North Korean agent murdered her mother five years before, Park had the poise and regal aloofness for which she would later become famous. The nickname “princess” seemed especially appropriate then. Within four months of that banquet, Park would see her other parent, the South Korean president, gunned down. She would then fade into obscurity. Park reportedly maintained a virtual shrine to her dead parents, especially her father, in her Seoul residence in the years following their deaths.
She reemerged in the late 1990s as a member of South Korea’s national assembly. As a political party chairwoman, she would earn the nickname “queen of elections” for leading the country’s main conservative party back from the political wilderness after a series of scandals. Park’s May 2002 visit to Pyongyang to meet with former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, scion of another Korean political dynasty, reportedly solicited from the “dear leader” regrets in the form of an indirect allusion to her mother’s murder at the hands of North Korea.
Park would go on to be elected as the eleventh president of the Republic of Korea in December 2012 after winning 51.6 percent of the majority vote. Park Geun-hye had actually succeeded, unlike her American counterpart Hillary Clinton, in shattering the proverbial gender “glass ceiling” by winning the presidency as a woman in Confucian, male-dominated South Korea
So it wasn’t supposed to end this way. The background to the scandal, which engulfed the former South Korean president, has an all-too-familiar ring: e-mail transmissions to a trusted female confidante, misuse of classified information and the murky dealings of private foundations with the alleged shakedown of political donors seeking to buy influence. No, this is not about the failed presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin and the Clinton Foundation. This is about Park Geun-hye and her long-time friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who has been charged with mishandling classified information without a security clearance and influencing peddling among the titans of South Korea’s leading chaebol business conglomerates.
In her rapid downward spiral, Park reached a historically unprecedented low approval rating of just 4 percent (and 0 percent approval among Koreans under thirty years of age), with 1.7 million taking to the streets of the South Korean capital in December of 2016, according to the New York Times. Hundreds of thousands more across the country participated in candlelight demonstrations. Crowds gathered outside the presidential Blue House screaming “evict her.”
The very ties to Park’s father that brought her such stunning success enveloped her in the political polarization of South Korean society between elderly conservatives, who revered her father’s record of achievement, and younger progressives, who despised her father’s dictatorial excesses and human rights violations. Park’s own rather isolated style of ruling included a reportedly rigid stubbornness. Her refusal to take advice from seasoned staff on a number of political appointments, which she reportedly based more on personal connections than competency, led to further scandal.
A little over one year into her presidency, the Sewol ferry sinking of April 2014, which left 304 dead, mainly secondary school students on a spring excursion, sent her popularity plunging to a level from which she never fully recovered. The refusal of the parents of the dead students to greet President Park at a memorial service for their children was an unprecedented rebuff in a Confucian hierarchical society.
Park’s failure to connect with the Korean public on the Sewol, including her reportedly being incognito in the vast Blue House during the opening hours of the tragedy, led to some ugly, unsubstantiated rumors of a romantic dalliance or hours out-of-touch while she was attended by her personal hairdresser. The Seoul Bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun was detained in South Korea for a period of time for allegedly spreading rumors and thus “defaming” Park—a tactic against the press reminiscent of the military rule of her father.
The December 2015 agreement between the foreign ministers of South Korea and Japan on the long-smoldering “Comfort Women” issue—primarily Korean women and girls taken as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during the World War II—further tarnished Park’s legacy. The agreement was viewed as inadequate, not only by the “Comfort Women” survivors themselves but by a significant portion of the South Korean public. Rumors swirling in Seoul of a verbal “gentlemen’s agreement” by the Park administration with Tokyo to eventually remove the “Comfort Women” statue from the vicinity of the Japanese Embassy led to students providing the statue with round-the-clock protection so that it could not be spirited away in the middle of the night. Park’s aloof and tone-deaf behavior on an issue of great symbolic importance to the average South Korean voter is unexplainable. For example, while meeting with a few of the “Comfort Women” survivors at a 2007 Washington congressional hearing, Park chose not to meet with the survivors at all during her presidential term. This was despite the fact that Pope Francis met with those survivors during his visit to Seoul as did former Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou.
Then, enter personal friend Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a South Korean religious cult figure who befriended Park around the untimely death of her parents, when she was most vulnerable. Choi was reportedly the behind-the-scenes go-to girlfriend of a president increasingly isolated from even her own two siblings. (Park, ever the dutiful Confucian daughter, was estranged for years from her younger sister, the Park family’s reputed “wild child,” who battled her elder sister for financial control of a foundation established by their late mother. Park reportedly had better rapport with her younger brother, stood by him during his addiction problems and was known to be devoted to his young son, heir to the Park family name. Park, however, distanced herself after her brother became caught up in an influence-peddling scandal that threatened her administration in 2014.)
Choi, however, remained the key adviser. She promoted a number of ill-advised political appointments and, as a de facto speechwriter, made use of transmitted emails containing classified information to craft talking points. Choi established a number of dubious private foundations for which she pressured donations from leading business leaders due to her presidential connection. Choi also used her friendship with the president for personal gain, allegedly accumulating tens of millions of dollars and winning favorable admission for her daughter to an elite South Korean university—something that reportedly pleased the childless Park.
Choi, dubbed as South Korea’s “Rasputin,” has been indicted on criminal charges of corruption. She returned to South Korea late last year from Germany, to which she had absconded with her daughter. She was then paraded into a Seoul prosecutor’s office in handcuffs on November 1 in an apparent visible gesture to allay the growing outrage of the South Korean public. In January, Choi’s twenty-year-old daughter was arrested in Denmark, where she was in hiding. She now awaits extradition to South Korea. Seoul’s Korea Times reported on March 10 that Choi’s lawyer issued a statement from his client “apologizing to the president and the people” after the Constitutional Court decision.