Park Finds Her Father's Footsteps Lead Right to Korea Jail Cell

  • Former president arrested on concerns she’ll destroy evidence
  • Park’s father oversaw South Korea’s economic rise in the 1970s

In just three weeks, South Korea’s first female president moved from the country’s highest seat of power to a jail cell.

A judge on Friday ordered the arrest of ex-leader Park Geun-hye, ousted March 10 for violating the constitution and meddling in corporate affairs. Her swift detention after she lost power -- and immunity -- followed months of street protests fueled by anger over the business and political ties dating back to her father Park Chung-hee that underpinned the nation’s rise in the 1970s.

Park Geun-hye at the Seoul Central District Court on March 30.

Photographer: Lee Yong-ho/Pool via Bloomberg

Long an icon of South Korea’s conservatives, Park campaigned on a promise to repeat her father’s “miracle of Han river,” an era of rapid economic growth spurred by funneling state resources into a handful of family-run companies known as chaebol, which means “wealth clan.” In turn, they gave generous donations to politicians, a dynamic that still hinders Asia’s fourth-largest economy and ultimately led to her downfall.

“Without Park Chung-hee, there would be no Park Geun-hye as we know her,” said Park Tae-woo, a professor at Korea University in Seoul, who isn’t related to them. “But she didn’t realize she lived in a different era, one where people had stronger ownership of their government and wouldn’t tolerate a leader acting like a royal princess.”

Coup, Assassination

Park, 65, says she has not taken a single penny for herself from the donations that companies like Samsung Electronics Co. made to entities controlled by her friend, Choi Soon-sil. Still, the Constitutional Court upheld an impeachment motion against her for what it called “illegal and unconstitutional” acts such as forcing companies to dole out cash.

Prosecutors now have several weeks to formally indict her. Park is in the same detention center as Samsung heir Jay Y. Lee, who was accused of bribing Choi in return for government backing of a 2015 merger that helped him consolidate control over South Korea’s biggest conglomerate. Lee denies wrongdoing.

The Seoul Detention Center, where Jay Y. Lee is held.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Park spent most of her life in the corridors of power. As a child, she lived in the Blue House -- South Korea’s equivalent to the White House -- after her father led a 1961 coup. In her early 20s, she became acting first lady when her mother was killed by an assassin targeting her father.

Throughout her childhood, South Korea evolved from a backwater struggling to recover from the Korean War to an Asian export juggernaut. Park watched as her father clamped down on labor unions and curbed media freedoms while heavily subsidizing companies that supported his 18-year dictatorship.

Read about how the death of Park’s mother shaped her political career

Her life changed in 1979, when her father was murdered by his intelligence chief over fears of a bloody clampdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Park left the Blue House and took control of her mother’s foundation for children.

In this Nov. 21, 1979 photo, Park Geun-hye leaves after her father’s funeral in Nov. 1979.

Photographer: Yonhap via AP Photo

It was there that she deepened a relationship with Choi that would come to haunt her political life. The first repercussions occurred in 1990, when Park resigned from the foundation over allegations that she allowed Choi’s father, a cult leader, to intervene in its operations and embezzle funds.

Afterward Park entered politics. She became a lawmaker in 1998 in Daegu, a city that prospered with the largess provided by her father. In 2002, she traveled to Pyongyang and met with Kim Jong Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong Un, raising her stature.

When she first ran for president in 2007, her relationship with Choi’s father became a campaign issue. She denied any wrongdoing, saying at a televised debate that she was thankful to him for helping her during “difficult” times. She lost the election.

Park Nostalgia

Five years later, economic conditions were ripe for Park’s rise. The surge in quality of life from the 1960s to the 1970s produced a nostalgia for her father that helped voters see her as the next savior for an economy hampered by income gaps and challenges from China.

Yet while Park emphasized entrepreneurship, eliminating regulations and forging free trade deals during her four years in power, exports and economic growth slowed. She faced persistent criticism from opponents that she was aloof and made little effort to connect with ordinary people, including large numbers of unemployed youth.

Then Choi came back into the spotlight. Newspapers reported on the bribery allegations, setting prosecutors into motion. Park in October acknowledged that she had consulted Choi on some state affairs, and apologized to the nation.

That only spurred more anger. Her approval rating dropped to 4 percent. Millions of people gathered around the nation to demand her resignation in the biggest series of rallies since 1987, when military leaders agreed to a direct presidential vote. Parliament impeached her in December, and a court upheld the decision earlier this month.

‘Painful History’

Park’s arrest ensures that her case will remain a key issue ahead of the May 9 election to replace her. The leading candidates commented on Friday, with a spokesman for frontrunner Moon Jae-in saying her detention would help clean up South Korea’s image and turn the page on its “painful history.” Hong Joon-pyo, a candidate for her Liberty Korea Party, urged people to forgive her.

Park Geun-hye, with her father Park Chung-hee and Prime Minister of New Zealand in 1978.

Photographer: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Whether anything will change remains to be seen. Since the death of Park’s father in 1979, nearly every president or their family members have faced graft allegations or spent time in prison. One, Roh Moo-hyun, committed suicide after prosecutors began a bribery probe on his associates.

Despite the public outrage, breaking up the relationships between the chaebol and political leaders once and for all won’t be easy, according to Gilles Hilary, professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

“The connections between the state and chaebols are deep,” he said. “The strength of these connections makes it unlikely that they will disappear in the short run.”