Who Tried to Correct the Mistakes of Her Father, Ends up Trapped by Them
In 2011, as she geared up for the 2012 presidential election in South Korea, Park Geun-hye told aides that she would like to reach out to some of the people her father fought and even imprisoned when he was the country’s authoritarian ruler in the 1960s and 1970s. A few years earlier, she developed a relationship with the man her father treated the worst, Kim Dae-jung, who as president in the late 1990s forgave her father and created a park in his honor.
Today, the capital she built with her father’s antagonists may be one of the few tools she has left to salvage her own presidency, which has been torn to shreds in the past few weeks by accusations and rumors that many people, even Park herself it seems, are still trying to sort out.
The accusations are that a longtime friend of Park’s, a woman named Choi Soon-sil, played an unseemly, possibly illegal, role in advising her both before and after she became president. A TV station found a tablet PC of Choi’s that contained drafts of several dozen speeches from the 2012 campaign and the first year or so after Park took office. The device also revealed Choi may have influenced appointments to posts in the Blue House.
Beyond shaping Park’s work, Choi has been accused of using her stature to raise millions of dollars from Korean businesses to fund two private foundations. Choi also allegedly gained favors from Ewha Womans University to admit her daughter, who did not meet academic qualifications. When the tablet reached the hands of journalists, Choi returned to Seoul from Germany on October 30 and submitted herself to prosecutors on the next day, running a gauntlet of media in a ritual that is the modern-day equivalent of the public shaming of South Korea’s feudal past. Three days later, prosecutors said they would charge her with influence peddling, abuse of power and fraud.
On November 3, Park—swept up in trial-by-media and public demonstrations of a scale last seen against President Lee Myung-bak shortly after he took office in 2008—appeared on TV to make a second public apology for her association with Choi and said she would submit herself to an independent prosecutor. In the speech, she explained she kept some distance from her family because she worried that might lead to “bad incidents,” an apparent reference to the trouble every other Korean president dealt with because of corrupt relatives who took advantage of their office. “Living by myself, I had no one around me who could look after my personal affairs. So I resorted to Choi, who has been my longtime friend,” Park said, adding an indirect reference to a relationship that is rooted in the assassination of Park’s mother in the 1970s. “I admit that I was not objective enough when it came to her.”
The speech came after the public and media found an earlier apology on October 25 insufficient. With a new opinion survey finding public support for her at the lowest level of any president, 5 percent, it is unclear at the moment whether the second apology—or anything she does now—will do any good for her reputation.
Some will see Park’s swift downfall as the latest sign of populist turmoil that has roiled the globe, leading to Brexit in the United Kingdom and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, sentiment that George Packer recently described in The New Yorker as “a reaction against modernity, with its ceaseless anxiety and churn.” But that is not the case. Park’s liberal economic tendencies and ambitions, which largely matched her predecessors’ on both sides of the political spectrum, have yielded few major changes. And South Koreans know they depend on global engagement and trade for their economic well-being.
Instead, the controversy shows how South Koreans imbue far more authority in the presidency than people in other countries do. Park’s mistake was turning for ideas to a friend who was not a public official, and worse a friend who allegedly did the illegal things she worried her relatives might do. It turns out that, despite the upheaval in the 1970s and 1980s that led to formation of a democracy, South Koreans still see the president as a royal or near-royal figure who should have all the answers or be able to get them from her staff or other elected officials.
South Korean newspapers said she “broke the seal” of the presidency and they likened presidential speeches, a few dozens of which Choi allegedly helped edit, to “royal decrees.” One newspaper wrote in an editorial that, “Even praiseworthy policies cannot be considered legitimate if they are masterminded or meddled in my private individuals who hold no public office.” It is unclear from such sentiments how or when a leader is supposed to gather or consider ideas from outside officialdom. Do the editorial writers, who hold no public office, think their own good ideas should be considered illegitimate?
The 2008 protests started after a TV station said that the United States was producing beef tainted by mad cow disease and that President Lee’s decision to import it put South Koreans at risk. Public and media sentiment hardened quickly against Lee. And as it is for Park now, Lee could do little about it. Two days after the report, Lee’s agriculture and trade ministers held a nationally televised press conference for more than two hours, the longest exchange I ever saw in more than six years as a correspondent in Korea. They explained in detail how the trade decision came about and how American beef was not poisoned, finishing only when there were no more questions. It had no impact. Street protests proceeded for two months, Lee was driven to make more televised apologies, while South Korean and American trade negotiators were driven to make nominal changes to the free trade pact pending at the time.
With a year and a quarter left in her presidency, Park is in a similar maelstrom that, with only partial evidence of wrongdoing, is driven largely by rumors and suspicions. Politicians in both the opposition party, which now controls the National Assembly, and Park’s own party have made conflicting statements about what they want her to do now Only one, Ahn Cheol-soo, the businessman-turned-politician who created a spinoff of the main liberal opposition party, is pushing hard for Park to step down. Her resignation would trigger a 60-day campaign that Ahn is positioned best to win.
Into all this comes Han Gwang-ok, who was imprisoned twice by the regime of Park’s father, brokered power among South Korea’s competing liberal factions in the 1990s and later served as chief of staff to President Kim Dae-jung, the country’s first liberal leader. Park on November 2 asked Han to become her chief of staff and he accepted. She also asked Kim Byong-joon, who worked for the most recent liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, to be the new prime minister.
Both Han and Kim urged her to submit to prosecutors’ questions about Choi. And their appointments won cautious praise in South Korean media (Though political leaders said they should have been consulted first). But with overall sentiment so stridently against Park, the media takes a risk by portraying her positively. In 2008, no Korean TV network or newspaper sent a reporter into an American grocery to show Americans buying beef normally.
When I met Han during the 2012 campaign, he described the upset he created in the liberal party with his decision to support Park. Her aides spent several months trying to win support from him and other opponents of her father. She wanted to show the past was behind, diminish the regionalism that has divided South Korea for centuries and also pick up votes in the southwestern Jeolla provinces, where the democracy movement was born. On the last matter, her effort worked only slightly; Park won 13 percent of the vote in North Jeolla and 10 percent in South Jeolla, higher than any previous conservative presidential candidates but only marginally so.
“In life, there are things to quickly leave off and things to hang on to,” Han told me in 2012, explaining his willingness to work with her. “The things to throw away are the unpleasant things from the past. The things to keep are patriotism and how to live the rest of life with dignity.”
The South Korean media now portrays Park as influenced heavily, or even controlled or brainwashed by Choi. And the public believes it. But from the time of her mother’s death, Park’s life has been controlled by them – the media and the public. She was forced into the role of a tragic figure wronged by outside forces who had to live princess-like, alone, quiet but strong until attaining a level of power that can compensate for her personal loss. As president, she is still being forced to preserve a royal ideal and not make any mistakes, rather than be seen as a normal person who, like everyone, needs friends but could be wronged by one.
For years, Park tried to amend the wrongs of her father and heal the wounds he created. She lived with patriotism and dignity, the way Han said mattered and the way that South Koreans wanted from her since her mother’s death. Her time in power has been far less eventful than her father’s and other predecessors, marked by stridency against North Korea, the mishandled aftermath of the Sewol sinking and slow economic growth. The past few weeks have shown that none of that counts against mistakes that—no matter how much editorialists shrieked about the pride of the nation or breaking the presidential seal, whatever that is—are far less harmful than those of the men who came before her.
Mr. Evan Ramstad is digital business editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He was a Seoul-based reporter for The Wall Street Journal from 2006 to 2013, and earlier worked for the Journal in Hong Kong and Dallas. He also worked for Associated Press in Dallas, New York and Washington. He’s a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio.