Newsmaker: Park Geun-hye
For the South Koreans who are binge-viewing all six seasons of Game of Thrones on HBO Asia, the rise, and now anticipated fall, of their 11th president will be familiar territory.
There are obvious parallels between South Korea’s fragile co-existence with its unpredictable neighbour and the geopolitics of George RR Martin’s fantasy world, in which the dark forces in the north are held at bay by a wall of ice.
But the story of Park Geun-hye, 64, the first female president of a country ranked 115th for gender equality, would not be out of place in the swords-and-sorcery fantasy drama.
The twist is that the central character in the scandal now threatening Park is a Rasputin-like figure rumoured to have exerted almost supernatural influence over the president for personal gain.
Born in 1952, Park was raised in the shadow of violence and political intrigue. The first child of general Park Chung-hee, she was nine when her father seized power in May 1961.
His daughter grew up in the febrile atmosphere of a country whose three-year war with the north had never formally ended and seemed constantly on the brink of reigniting.
Her teenage years were punctuated by spasmodic fighting along the border and several assassination attempts on her father. Park was 15 when, in January 1968, North Korean special forces got to within metres of the presidential Blue House.
Violence would eventually claim both her parents. This perhaps partly explains why she never married. It might also have dulled the lure of politics, but Park followed the dynastic path.
In 1974 she graduated from Seoul’s Sogang University with a degree in electrical engineering. Her dream of studying further in France ended on August 15 that year when her mother, Yuk Young-soo, was shot dead during another failed attempt to assassinate Park’s father.
It was then, as the 22-year-old attempted to fill her mother’s shoes as South Korea’s first lady, that Park became close to Choi Tae-min, a charismatic preacher, and his daughter Choi Soon-sil.
Death returned to claim Park’s father five years later. She was 27 when he was shot in a failed coup in October 1979.
She entered politics in 1998, winning a by-election for the centre-right Grand National Party and sitting in the national assembly for 14 years.
Though in 2007 she failed in a first attempt to become the GNP’s presidential candidate, her sights were set on emulating her father.
By 2012 she had become the party’s leader, renaming it the Saenuri, or frontier, party and reinvigorating its fortunes. First she masterminded a general election victory and then won the presidency with 51 per cent of the vote.
Park has spent the past four years often skilfully picking her way through the diplomatic minefield that separates Seoul and Pyongyang, seeking to rebuild trust while maintaining a popular tough line on bellicose North Korean posturing.
Her foreign policy has been outward-looking. While maintaining the vital relationship with the United States, she has developed economic links with Russia and China, and in May this year became the first Korean president to visit Iran.
Under Park, South Korea has strengthened its standing as the world’s 11th largest economy, but her ratings have been a roller coaster. In the summer of 2013 she enjoyed 63 per cent public approval, but by January 2015 this had slumped to a low of 30 per cent.
This was blamed chiefly on planned tax increases, but her popularity had been waning since the death in April 2014 of 304 people, mainly schoolchildren, in the capsize of a ferry. Protests focused on the government’s perceived responsibility for and inadequate response to the disaster, and Park apologised publicly.
On April 13 this year, Park’s party suffered an unexpected general election defeat, reducing it to second billing behind the main opposition.
By October, that presidency was under threat from an unexpected quarter.
Stories had begun surfacing in the media about the influence over the president and her policies of a secret cabal known as “the eight fairies”, led by her confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Back in 2007, a cable from the US embassy in Seoul, later released through WikiLeaks, described Park’s relationship with Choi Soon-sil’s father, “charismatic pastor” Choi Tae-min, as “unusual”.
In the cable, Choi Tae-min, who died in 1994, was characterised as “a Korean Rasputin [who] controlled Park … when she was first lady after her mother’s assassination”.
It is that relationship, and Park’s subsequent apparent dependence on Choi’s daughter for advice on everything from clothes to policy, that has now come back to haunt the president in charge of one of the world’s largest economies, who earlier this year was ranked by Forbes, the American business magazine, as the world’s 12th most powerful woman.
At the beginning of this month Choi Soon-sil, 60, returned to Seoul from Europe to be arrested on suspicion of having influenced state affairs for personal gain. She has been accused of extorting almost $69 million (Dh253.4m) from large corporations into privately run foundations she controlled. And messages found on the phones of Park’s aides suggest Choi was involved in decisions ranging from “appointing cronies to high office” to “meddling in government schedules.”
The husband of Park’s estranged sister, Park Geun-ryeong, threw fuel on the fire, claiming that the president’s closeness to the Chois had destroyed the sisters’ relationship. “My wife was close to Park when they lived together,” he told Reuters. “Then, after my wife got married and moved out, the two Chois wheedled their way into that vacancy.”
While prosecutors are investigating the relationship between Park and Choi, millions have gathered in central Seoul for a candlelit protest demanding their president’s resignation.
“South Koreans chose … Park as president [because] they trusted … she would put the people and country ahead of any personal interests,” read an editorial in the Hankyoreh newspaper on Monday. That faith was now “shattered [and] she needs to show one final bit of decency to the public that elected her. She must step down.”
A powerful woman undone, a dynasty on the brink of destruction. The scene is set for a finale worthy of Game of Thrones.