Korea's longtime 'princess' dethroned in disgrace

PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - The corridors of power have been home to South Korea's Park Geun-Hye as a child, de facto first lady, and president.

She leaves them in disgrace, crippled by a corruption scandal that made her the country's first head of state to be removed by impeachment.

Now 65, Park grew up in the spotlight at the Blue House, the presidential complex just north of one of Seoul's royal palaces, enjoying a pampered life as the eldest child of military dictator Park Chung-Hee.

Despite rights abuses, her father oversaw the country's rapid economic development during his 1961-1979 rule, with the first family treated as royalty by some supporters and Park dubbed the young "princess" - a nickname that endured for decades.

The assassinations of both her parents five years apart in the 1970s only further fanned sympathy for her.

Park's mother - widely praised as a dutiful wife and caring mother in the still traditionalist society of the day - was murdered by a Korean-Japanese believed to have been acting on Pyongyang's orders.

Tens of thousands of South Koreans stage protest in Seoul calling for President Park Geun Hye to resign

  • Tens of thousands of unionized workers staged a general strike and students boycotted classes Wednesday, upping pressure on President Park Geun-hye to resign.
  • Demanding the president's immediate resignation, civic groups, the workers and students vowed to hold a large-scale rally Saturday.
  • An association of 500 civic groups declared Wednesday as "a day of citizens' resistance," staging rallies in front of City Hall in central Seoul and in major cities from 3 p.m. More universities also joined a boycott of classes to ramp up pressure on Park.
  • "Ignoring people's calls for an immediate resignation, Park shifted responsibility (for her resignation) to the parliament," Choi Jong-jin, acting chief of the nation's second-largest umbrella labour union KCTU, said during the rally in central Seoul.
  • Some 220,000 workers from the public transport, public service, construction and education industries under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions joined the partial strike by taking a day off or leaving work early.
  • Students from 17 universities, including Sookmyung Women's University, Sogang University and Korea University, began to boycott their classes Friday. A few more schools including Seoul National University and Kookmin University joined the boycott Wednesday. Incheon University, Inha University and Pusan National University will join the move from Thursday.
  • Starting at 4 p.m., some 20,000 laborers marched across central Seoul and stopped at the headquarters of major conglomerates including Samsung, SK, Lotte, GS and Hanhwa, which are suspected of contributing money to the K-Sports and Mir foundations set up and run by Park's close confidante Choi Soon-sil.
  • The rally organizers initially planned to march to a fountain only 100 meters away from the presidential office, but the police blocked their plan, citing traffic disruption.
  • The sixth anti-Park rally will be held Saturday at Gwanghwamun Square. As with last Saturday's rally, organizers said some 100,000 participants will completely surround the presidential office from several locations starting from 4 pm.
  • Tens of thousands of South Koreans protested in central Seoul on Saturday (Nov 5) in one the largest demonstrations in the country's capital for years, calling on embattled President Park Geun Hye to resign over a growing influence-peddling scandal.
  • Roughly 43,000 people were at the candle-lit rally early on Saturday (Nov 5) evening, according to police. Organisers said a growing crowd of 100,000 had assembled, making the protest one of the biggest since demonstrations in 2008 against US beef imports.
  • Park Geun Hye has been rocked by a scandal involving an old friend who is alleged to have used her closeness to the president to meddle in state affairs. Ms Park has pledged to cooperate with prosecutors in an investigation.
  • Koreans have been angered by the revelations and say Ms Park, the latest South Korean leader to be embroiled in a scandal involving family or friends, has betrayed public trust and mismanaged her government.
  • Her approval rating has slipped to just 5 per cent according to a Gallup poll released on Friday (Nov 4), the lowest number for a South Korean president since such polling began in 1988.
  • Police said they had deployed 17,600 officers and 220 units including buses and mobile barriers to Saturday's protest. Police in riot gear lined the alleys and streets leading to the presidential Blue House as the main body of the demonstration began the march through central Seoul.
  • Ms Park has sacked many of her immediate advisers over the crisis. A former aide, Jeong Ho Seong, was arrested on Thursday (Nov 3) on suspicion of leaking classified information, a prosecution official told Reuters.
  • No South Korean president has ever failed to finish their five-year term, but Ms Park has faced growing pressure from the public and political opponents to quit.
  • "Even though we're just students, we feel like we can't put up with this unreasonable society anymore so we're participating in this protest with like-minded friends," said Mr Byun Woo Hyuk, an 18-year-old high school student holding a banner calling on the president to resign.

A student in France at the time, Park returned home to assume the role of first lady until her father was killed by his own security chief in 1979.

She subsequently kept a low profile for nearly two decades, until she made a successful 1998 bid to become a lawmaker as the South reeled from the fallout of the Asian financial crisis.

She became an instant political star among older conservative Koreans who fondly remembered her mother and revered her father for helping pull a war-ravaged nation out of poverty.

Adept at taking advantage of the nostalgia for them and the sympathy for her, she frequently peppered her campaign speeches with the phrase, "After I tragically lost my parents to assassins' bullets." .

Park rose quickly up the political ladder, earning the nickname "the queen of elections" due to older conservative voters' unwavering loyalty.

The fact that Park never married and was estranged from her two siblings was part of her appeal, in a country where leaders had often been embroiled in major corruption scandals involving relatives.

Read Also: Timeline of South Korean President Park Geun Hye's political career

"I'm married to the Republic of Korea. I have no children. South Koreans are my family," Park once said, citing her role model as Elizabeth I of England - known as the 'Virgin Queen'.

Eventually Park became the South's first female president in 2012, winning the highest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era.

But it was the family of a shady religious figure she chose as a mentor who ultimately sowed the seeds of her downfall.

Her relationship with Choi Tae-Min, the seven-times-married founder of a cult-like group 40 years her senior, began in the 1970s when he sent her letters claiming that he had seen her dead mother in his dreams.

His influence grew until a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks noted widespread rumours that he had "complete control over Park's body and soul".

He died in 1994, and his daughter Choi Soon-Sil - already a friend who handled Park's daily life including her wardrobe choices - inherited his role.

Park is accused of colluding with her for years to squeeze tens of millions of dollars from South Korean businesses, including many of the country's biggest companies, in exchange for governmental favours.

Choi is on trial for coercion and abuse of power, while Lee Jae-Yong, the de facto leader of the world's biggest smartphone maker Samsung, has been indicted for bribery, corruption and other offences.

Park apologised several times in tearful televised addresses, painting herself as a lonely, isolated leader whose main offence was to place too much trust in a friend.

"South Koreans, since I took office, I have lived a lonely life," she said.

Choi "stayed with me during my most difficult times," she added.

"It is a fact that I let my guard down."

Read Also: Park Geun-hye stripped of all presidential perks, to move out of Blue House immediately

But the scandal was too much even for many of her supporters, prompting millions to take to the streets calling for her ouster and sending her once-bulletproof approval ratings to record lows.

Many in her own party turned against her to vote for her impeachment in parliament, leaving it to the constitutional court to have the final say.

The scandal has exposed allegedly corrupt ties between politics and business, as in Park's father's time, and his divisive legacy has always dogged her political career, with critics accusing her of inheriting his authoritarian streak.

State probes have portrayed Park as a solitary, aloof figure who preferred staying at her residence to meeting advisors at the office, overly focused on her appearance and showing little tolerance for criticism.

One official who was her chief of staff for two years told a parliamentary hearing he had often gone entire weeks without seeing her at all - an experience echoed by many other senior personnel.

Read Also: Impeached Park now faces prosecution

Park was also accused of negligence over the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 - when more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned in the South's worst disaster for decades.

Separately, Park is accused of ordering officials to crack down on and punish thousands of artists who voiced criticism of her.

"Instead of the father's intelligence, insight and determination to build economy, she only inherited the worst part of him - obsession with power... and intolerance for critics," Chun Yu-Ok, a former ally and senior lawmaker in Park's party, wrote in a recent memoir.

"Her downfall is a reminder for all South Koreans that now is time to finally say goodbye to our past."

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