FROM POLITICAL PRINCESS TO ACCUSED
Family of shady religious figure sowed the seeds of her downfall
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
Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arriving at court in Seoul yesterday.