FROM POLITI­CAL PRINCESS TO AC­CUSED

Fam­ily of shady re­li­gious fig­ure sowed the seeds of her down­fall

New Straits Times - - World -

THE cor­ri­dors of power were home to South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye as a child, de facto first lady and pres­i­dent. Now, she re­sides at a de­ten­tion cen­tre, and is ad­dressed as “the ac­cused”.

Park went on trial yes­ter­day over the cor­rup­tion scan­dal that made her the coun­try’s first head of state to be re­moved by impeachment.

Park, 65, grew up at the Blue House pres­i­den­tial com­plex, en­joy­ing a pampered life as the el­dest child of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Park Chung-hee.

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

She kept a low pro­file for two decades af­ter her fa­ther’s death in 1979, un­til she made a suc­cess­ful 1998 bid to be­come a law­maker.

Adept at tak­ing ad­van­tage of the nos­tal­gia for older con­ser­va­tive Kore­ans and the sym­pa­thy for her, she 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 her vot­ers’ un­wa­ver­ing loy­alty.

The fact that she 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.

Park was elected the South’s first fe­male pres­i­dent in 2012.

But, it was the fam­ily of a shady re­li­gious fig­ure she chose as a men­tor who 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 United States 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 and Choi, who ap­peared along­side her in court yes­ter­day, are ac­cused of col­lud­ing 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.

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 bul­let proof ap­proval rat­ings to record lows.

As al­le­ga­tions swirled, she was also ac­cused of abuse of power, and neg­li­gence over the sink­ing of the Se­wol ferry in 2014.

Par­lia­ment im­peached Park in De­cem­ber, when many in her own party voted against her, and the con­sti­tu­tional court up­held her dis­missal in March.

Within weeks, she was ar­rested, and the lat­est stop on her jour­ney is Seoul Cen­tral District Court, Room 417. AFP

REUTERS PIC

Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye ar­riv­ing at court in Seoul yes­ter­day.

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