K-drama or K-politics? Death, dynasties and disaster in the Blue House
10 March 2017
As she leaves the Blue House for the last time, Park joins a series of Korean leaders who have left office amid high drama. At times, activity at the highest level of Korean politics can often seem akin to an episode of the TV soap operas the country exports around the world.
Despite the often chaotic situation in the Blue House, South Korea has repeatedly shrugged it off. Its economy has grown from a regional backwater to the eleventh largest in the world. Per capita GDP has increased from around $300 in 1970, to over $27,000 in 2015.
The Republic of Korea was founded on 15 August 1948, following three years of occupation by the Allied powers after their victory in World War II ended Japanese rule in Korea. Syngman Rhee, a US-educated former independence fighter, became the country’s first president.
A month later, Kim Il Sung declared the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), north of the 38th parallel. Tensions between the two countries, which would break out into open war in 1950, defined Rhee’s term in office.
Facing a potential threat of invasion from the North, Rhee passed the National Security Act in 1948. The law “made praise for Communism or North Korea illegal and was used to execute, imprison or simply deter, political opponents,” according to Daniel Tudor, author of “Korea: The Impossible Country.”
Following the war, Rhee’s strongman instincts came to the fore, as he declared martial law and made himself president-for-life.
Mass protests, a sight that would become familiar in Korea over the decades, broke out in 1960 against Rhee’s increasingly dictatorial rule.
Tens of thousands of protesters, led by student and labor groups, marched on the Blue House on April 19, demanding Rhee’s resignation. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing over 100 and wounding many more.
The April Revolution, as it became known, did not end there however, and attempts by Rhee to deploy the army against protesters were unsuccessful when soldiers refused to fire on their fellow citizens.
Facing pressure from the US and protesters, Rhee finally agreed to resign “if the people (so) desire.” He fled to Hawaii, where he died on 19 July 1965.
After a “brief flirtation with democracy,” according to Tudor, General Park Chung-hee seized power in a coup in 1961. Pushed by Washington to become a civilian, he stood for election in 1963 and won.
“This was believed to have been a reasonably fair vote, and due to his highly successful economic policies, Park was able to narrowly win another in 1967,” Tudor said.
His popularity dropping by the beginning of the next decade however, Park again declared martial law, replacing the constitution with a new version that greatly empowered the President.
During this time, the Park family was struck by personal tragedy, when a North Korean assassin — aiming for Park — shot and killed his wife, and mother of Park Geun-hye, Yuk Young-soo.
Park himself was assassinated on 26 October 1979 by Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean equivalent of the CIA. Kim’s ultimate motives for the killing remain unclear, but he told the court that one reason he killed the President was his failure to protect his daughter from the influence of alleged cult leader and shaman Choi Tae-min.
The connection between the Parks and the Chois would come back to haunt the President’s young daughter, who left the Blue House an orphan.
Army general Chun Doo-hwan seized power in a coup in December 1979. South Korea would not elect a President via direct and free elections until 1988, when Roh Tae-woo became leader of the country’s Sixth Republic.
Roh oversaw the country’s transition to democracy, and the successful Seoul Olympics. He became the first Korean President to peacefully hand over power to a civilian successor — Kim Young-sam.
“Showing just how far democracy had come, both Roh and Chun Doo-hwan were convicted of treason, mutiny and corruption in August 1996,” Tudor said.
They were both later pardoned as a gesture of national unity, but a pattern of Korean presidents facing charges after leaving office had been set.
“Unless the 1987 constitution that endowed the president with exceeding presidential power (is removed), whoever sits on the presidency will inevitably end up going to jail or being tried in some cases. The historical record is telling,” said Kim Hyung-a, associate professor at the Australia National University College of Asia and the Pacific.
Corruption and scandal
Kim Dae-jung, who succeeded Kim Young-sam in 1998, saw three of his sons imprisoned for corruption by the end of his term, after which Roh Moo-hyun took office in 2003.
After he left the Millennium Democratic Party to form his own in 2003, the National Assembly voted 193–2 to impeach Roh, the first time such an action had been taken. A court later threw out the case against him, but his administration continued to be dogged by criticism.
“His remaining time in office was as tempestuous as his early years,” according to James Hoare, author of the “Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Korea.”
Nor did his life get any easier after he left office. In December 2008, Roh’s brother was indicted on embezzlement charges, and a subsequent corruption investigation quickly implicated multiple aides, other family members, and eventually Roh himself.
On 23 May 2009, Roh leaped to his death from a hill behind his house. “Too many people have suffered because of me,” he wrote in a suicide note. “I cannot imagine the suffering they will go through in the future.”
Downfall of a political princess
Lee Myung-bak, a former mayor of Seoul who assumed the Presidency in 2008, was also dogged by corruption allegations both during and after his term in office.
In 2012, he was forced to apologize for “shameful incidents” involving his family and inner circle, after several of them were accused of bribery. After a single five-year term, Lee was succeeded by party-mate Park Geun-hye.
The daughter of a former strongman, who spent all of her life in the public eye, Park was never going to be a normal President.
“According to her aides, her style of governing was more reminiscent of (Park Chung-hee), more authoritarian than South Korea’s used to in today’s 21st century democracy,” Duyeon Kim of Georgetown University told CNN.
Just as her early life was dogged by tragedy — the twin murders of both of her parents — her presidency was marred by South Korea’s worst disaster in recent history.
On April 16, 2014, a ferry sank off the coast of South Korea. As the country watched live broadcasts in horror, 304 passengers — most of them high school students on a field trip to the holiday island of Jeju — drowned. Park did not address the nation until seven hours after the tragedy began.
“That was a stain on her presidency,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “There was a palpable sense at that time that she wasn’t there. It’s not as if people expected her to magically save the ship, but there was a need for leadership.”
Anger over Park’s absence turned to outrage after it was revealed, years later, that one of the people she was consulting with during the tragedy was Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of the cult leader her father’s assassin had warned about decades before.
“The family has had an extraordinary influence over Park Geun-hye for essentially her entire adult life,” David Kang, a Korea expert at the University of Southern California, told CNN in December.
“It’s much more than simply, ‘oh she knows this person,’ it’s deeply intertwined, almost like they’re Rasputin and Park Geun-hye is just a puppet.”
Choi-gate, as the scandal would inevitably become known, quickly engulfed Park’s presidency as hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets and lawmakers moved to impeach her.
On 10 March 2017, the South Korean Constitutional Court upheld a vote to remove Park from office, making the country’s first female President also the first to be successfully impeached.
Throughout the scandal — which also implicated high-ranking members of some of South Korea’s most prominent companies — the country has shown few signs of flagging. Stock in Samsung, South Korea’s largest firm, did not dip even when prosecutors sought an arrest warrant for its vice chairman.
“Scandals happen in democracies,” said Robert Kelly, associate professor at Pusan National University. “(Park’s impeachment was) democracy in action, a great indication of why South Korea is awesome.”
This is in keeping with previous upheavals in South Korean politics. Even when the Blue House is in chaos and pressure from North Korea intensifies, the country has thrived, becoming an Asian economic and soft power dynamo.