South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye, was arrested on Friday and placed in a detention facility in Seoul. According to the statement issued by the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s office, Park — the nation’s first female president — “abused the mighty power and position as President to take bribes from companies,” “infringed upon the freedom of corporate management” and “leaked important confidential official information.”
Park was impeached by the national assembly in December as a result of this financial scandal and officially removed from office on March 10. She now faces charges which could lead to anywhere from 10 years to life in prison.
The story of Park’s downfall and the subsequent reaction of the South Korean people is one defined by generations. As thousands of young South Koreans gathered in the streets of Seoul on Saturday in celebration of Park’s arrest, thousands of others — most of whom were over the age of 60 — gathered just a few blocks away to protest it. These generational fault lines stem from a difference in national memory. Park Geun-hye’s rise and fall from power is inseparably tied to this memory.
Park Geun-hye is the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who was the dictator of South Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Park rose to her position as president largely on the popularity of her father. Though he came to power with a military coup, the first President Park created rapid economic growth in South Korea after the Korean War; now, South Koreans who were adults during the Park regime reflect on this legacy fondly.
“Many people think of this past President Park like a father who raised our country from the poorest country to now,” explained Joonhee Park, professor of art and communication who is from South Korea. “I think overcasts this romanticism, this nostalgia, toward his daughter.”
The scandal which brought Park Geun-hye down is also closely linked to her father. Left parentless by the killing of both her mother and father by 1979, Park turned to Choi Tae-min, a religious cult leader who heavily influenced her father, for guidance and support. Choi Tae-min was known as the “Rasputin of South Korea” until his death in 1994, and as Park rose to her position as president of the nation, the Choi family maintained its influence over her. Choi Tae-min’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, is now also in a South Korean jail under charges of coercion and abuse of power.
Though not a formal member of Park’s https://thewheatonrecord.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/IMG_0048.webpistration in any capacity, Choi used Park’s status to extort millions of dollars in bribes from several major corporations — including Samsung, South Korea’s largest company. The Guardian summarized the scandal as a case of “corruption and influence peddling,” as Choi used her influence over Park for her own personal financial gain. Park’s alleged guilt lies in her role as an accomplice to Choi’s extortion.
The crowds which have gathered in opposing protests since the scandal came to light this past fall are likely to continue, since protest, according to education professor Dr. Il-Hee Kim, has a legacy of “affecting the whole government, the whole nation” of South Korea. Kim notes that though it’s impossible to be certain, his belief is that the protests “definitely had an impact” on the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.
Dr. Hanmee Kim, a professor of history, noted that protests are deeply rooted in South Korea.
“Protest is a legacy in South Korean politics,” Hanmee Kim said. “These specific protests for resignation … add new elements to the protest culture.”
South Korea will hold elections to determine its new president in May, in which the conservative policies which brought Park to power will be tested.
“There are two countervailing pressures on the conservative party,” said international relations professor Dr. Tim Taylor. “On the one hand, the corruption case with Park is obviously a huge blow to the conservative party. On the other hand though, what’s happening in North Korea is one of the most salient issues of the election.”
Indeed, looking forward as well as looking back, the generational memories of South Koreans continue to influence the nation’s politics. Older South Koreans, with latent memories of the Korean War, still favor a more aggressive anti-North Korea stance. The younger generation lacks this same sense of urgency regarding their ornery neighbor and tends to favor the liberal party’s more open stance regarding North Korea.
The political polarization of South Korea reflects global trends, says Taylor.
“I think what we might be seeing now is this new dimension that’s no longer left versus right; it’s closed versus open,” Taylor said. “Closed or open is really really broad. That’s trade, that’s immigration, that’s ideas, that’s nationalism — in South Korea, they’ve already had that for a while.”
Both Drs. Kim and Dr. Park, however, agree that the May election is “already done.” With Moon Jae-in, a member of the liberal party, polling at 40 percent, it is unlikely that another candidate will be able to turn the tide back in the conservative direction.
For now, the legacy of President Park is one more chapter in a unfortunately long saga of corruption in South Korean politics. Business professor Min-Dong Paul Lee, however, has hopes that it will be a transformative chapter.
“I hope that this crisis has at least awakened people, that you can get indicted and prosecuted, and that moving forward people will at least be more careful,” Lee said. “The culture of politics may change a little; I really do hope so.”