South Korean president impeachment tarnishes family legacy

Park Geun-hye could always rely on one unwavering gift throughout a political career that saw a triumphant return as South Korea’s first female president to the palatial Blue House where she’d lived as a girl: She always enjoyed the reflected devotion, some might say worship, that half the country felt for her late dictator father.

In the end – isolated, mocked and loathed by millions of protesters who swarmed the streets around her presidential fortress on the side of a sacred granite mountain – even the conservative adulation that had been her political bedrock failed to save her.

Parliament impeached Park and stripped her of all power Friday amid fury over prosecution claims that she had handed over extraordinary power to a corrupt friend. Her prime minister takes over while the nation’s Constitutional Court reviews whether to accept the lawmakers’ vote and drive her permanently from office.

Park could still wriggle out of the noose if the court goes against the overwhelming sentiment most of the country seems to share and restores her presidency. But her dream of extending the legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, is ruined.

It is hard to imagine a more absolute fall for a woman who conservatives had long cherished as the self-sacrificing “Daughter of the Nation,” a woman who survived a knife attack a decade ago on the campaign trail that left her face slashed, and who rose above widespread sexism to build a political juggernaut.

Her supporters admired the adolescent who put aside girlish dreams to serve as first lady after her mother was assassinated in 1974; the leader who shunned her brother and sister to avoid the corruption that had brought down so many other leaders; the spinster who shut down any semblance of romantic love to devote herself entirely to public service.

None of it, though, was enough to efface the public anger and shame that has flooded over her as the details of a remarkable scandal emerged.

The speed of the collapse has been as remarkable as it has been comprehensive.

It was only a month and a half ago that Park made a surprise apology to the nation and acknowledged that she had relied on an old friend to help edit speeches and conduct unspecified “public relations.”

As the weeks wore on and the crowds grew at Saturday rallies staged within screaming distance of the Blue House, prosecutors built a more sinister case against her, one that shocked a country.

Park was accused of allowing the daughter of a cult leader, Choi Soon-sil, a close friend long mired in corruption scandals, to extort companies and play an extraordinary role in government affairs, even though she had no official position.

Choi was said to have chosen the president’s outfits, decided which aides should be trusted and steered official thinking on major policy decisions.

This struck a nerve, even with Park’s conservative supporters.

If the president couldn’t dress herself or compose speeches without this mysterious woman’s help, the critics argued, let alone decide how to handle nuclear-armed North Korea, how could she be trusted? What did it say about South Korea’s hard-won democracy that she allegedly allowed Choi, an unelected, corrupt product of the bad old days of nepotism, cronyism and elitism, hold such sway over their leader?

It was too much, even for many of the elderly conservatives who’d seen her as the champion of a father who they saw not as a dictator who tortured and executed dissidents but as a savior who’d dragged the country from poverty and shame and, through force of will, created the economic “Miracle on the Han” (the river that bisects Seoul) in the 1960s and ’70s.

Park Chung-hee, his supporters have always maintained, gave the nation pride by rescuing millions from poverty with his industrialization policies at a time when South Korea was poorer than North Korea and just emerging from decades of Japanese colonialism and total war.

His daughter, after triumphing against her liberal opponent in the 2012 presidential election, began her single, five-year term as the standard bearer of her father’s legacy. Hopes were high that she would boost economic growth and find a way to cow a perennially belligerent North Korea.

Even before the Choi scandal, however, complaints about her “imperial” leadership style, ineffectiveness in curbing North Korean provocations, attacks on free speech and dissenters, and government mismanagement of rescue operations after a deadly ferry sinking blamed in part on corruption and incompetence had dinged those hopes.

The totality of Park’s fall was reflected in polls that showed her popularity dipping as low as 4 percent, the worst of any leader in South Korea’s modern democratic history.

In a recent column, Herald Business, a conservative daily, said public calls to remove the president were also a demand to end the “Park Chung-hee myth,” which was “based on an imperial kind of leadership.”

In another sign of just how battered the Park legacy is, a ceremony celebrating the 99th anniversary of Park Chung-hee’s birth in his hometown of Gumi last month drew around 500 people; last year saw nearly 2,000.