Who is Korea’s President Park?

07-Dec-2016 Intellasia | BBC | 6:00 AM Print This Post

This week, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea will find out if she is to be impeached by the country’s parliament. This drama has severely shaken the country, but it has both a psychological, as well as a political element to it.

It is the stuff of Shakespearean drama. A small, quiet ruler sits alone in her palace as the crowds outside shout in unison that she is unwanted and should leave. Her enemies in parliament plot her removal and prosecutors wonder if they can put her behind bars.

She has no-one to turn to. Her mother and father were both slain by political opponents and she herself was attacked – the scar from the slash of the blade is still visible down the side of her face.

She never married and so there is no close family to support her. She did have one bosom friend whom she confided in for 40 years, but contact was severed as scandal engulfed them both.

The lady in the palace, Ms Park, is now the focus of a very public drama taking place on the streets of the big cities of South Korea, particularly with the protests in Seoul where hundreds of thousands, many holding candles, march to the very gates of the palace each Saturday night and convey their discontent.

But there must also be a private drama. Nobody knows the psychology of President Park, perhaps not even herself.

She grew up in utterly extraordinary circumstances, the daughter of President Park Chung-hee, the military strongman who took power and who then set the country on the road to industrialisation.

His wife (and the current President Park’s mother) was assassinated in 1974 by a sympathiser with North Korea, possibly even an agent of South Korea’s neighbour acting on orders from Pyongyang.

The devastated daughter stepped into her dead mother’s shoes as the country’s first lady, performing official duties alongside her father.

Five years later, her father was himself assassinated by his own intelligence chief during a drinking session.

She, a daughter orphaned by political violence, then entered politics herself – and was nearly killed when a man slashed her face in a public meeting.

When the current President Park won the highest office in the election of 2012, she said (in clear English): “When I was just 22 years old, I assumed the unprecedented duties as our country’s acting first lady. That was because I had the responsibility to fill the void left by my mother’s death at the hands of a North Korean terrorist.

“National partition is a sorrow which touches all Koreans, but for me it brought to the fore unimaginable personal suffering.

“When I thought I had lost all hope, however, I chose to rise above my agony and pain and I tried with all my heart to fulfil my duties when the eyes of Koreans were upon me.”

Her father remains controversial and divisive even today. He is reviled for the methods with which the Korean Central Intelligence Agency kept power during his rule. His agents tortured and killed critics of the government.

But he also laid the foundations of the modern industrial state which South Korea has become.

By all accounts, President Park, the daughter, adored him. She remains very defensive of his legacy, conceding the dark side of his regime while emphasising the modernisation. “Different times need different types of leadership,” she said in 2002.

She has apologised for her father’s iron fist but has also praised the achievements of his 18 years in power: “My father was criticised as a dictator but that should not overshadow his accomplishments in restructuring the country. He brought Korea out of 5,000 years of poverty. What he left unaccomplished was democratisation of the system”.

She has never lived outside the cocoon of power (or the gilded cage of power, depending on your point of view). As a child, for example, she went to a state Catholic school on a normal bus – but accompanied by two bodyguards.

She is studious. When she went to China in 2013, she spoke in Mandarin to Premier Xi Jinping over lunch. An aide told the local press: “Park studied Mandarin on her own, in most cases during her spare time in the evening or during weekends. As you know, she neither drinks nor plays golf. Hence, she had relatively much time to learn foreign languages before she took office.”

The president also has a good command of English (in a neutral, non-American accent), plus French and some ability in Spanish.

And she is tough and has spoken several times to the Korean people on television during the current crisis. She apologised for the heartbreak they had suffered for the scandal – but has not admitted any role in it, except trusting people too much.

And she said she had ceased all contact with Choi Soon-sil, the friend and mentor of 40 years’ standing.

It must be lonely in the presidential palace known as the Blue House these days. But for how long will she stay there?



Category: Korea

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