43,000 people took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday demanding that their president, Park Geun-hye, tender her resignation. Her approval rating has plummeted to an unprecedented 5%, the lowest ever recorded by pollsters in South Korea. On Thursday, Ms. Park appointed a new Prime Minister after she dismissed her old one. Dozens of aides have been let go. Rumors swirl regarding Ms. Park’s fecklessness, corruption, and even involvement in a pseudo-christian cult. What on earth is going on?
It’s all part of a scandal that is taking the South Korean government by storm. A few weeks ago, it was discovered that one of Ms. Park’s oldest and closest friends, Choi Soon-sil, has been manipulating the President for her own personal gain. Ms. Choi has apparently advised Mr. Park on classified issues of the state. She is also accused of using her closeness to the president to extract 70 million dollars in donations from corporate giants like Samsung and Hyundai. The scandal began when it was found that Ms. Choi’s daughter was given preferential admissions treatment at a prestigious university, apparently as a result of her mother’s relationship with the President. The Korean people are infuriated that a shadowy, unelected figure was able to wield so much influence over Ms. Park. That such a thing could even occur may seem unbelievable. Considering Ms. Park’s history, however, it becomes a bit more understandable.
Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee. The elder Park is a monumental and controversial figure in modern South Korean history. He ruled the country for 18 years, from 1961 to 1979. During that time, South Korea underwent one of the most miraculous economic miracles in human history. Before the Korean war in the 1950s, South Korea was already one of the poorest countries in Asia. After the war, it was even more devastated. By the time Park Chung-hee was assassinated, however, it had become an industrial powerhouse. Today, its vast wealth has propelled it to its current place as the world’s 11th largest economy. Yet such progress came at a steep cost.
In order to develop his country, Park Chung-hee repressed it. Opposition was severely restricted, and the government can be described as nothing less than a dictatorship. In 1974, a North Korean sympathizer attempted to assassinate Park Chung-hee. He missed. Instead, he hit his wife, Park Geun-hye’s mother. Suddenly, the younger Park was, at the age of 22, thrust into the national spotlight, effectively assuming the role of first lady to a controversial dictator. Five years later, in 1979, Park Chung-hee’s assassinator did not miss.
This was a tumultuous time in the life of a young Park Geun-hye. As she simultaneously assumed a range of new responsibilities while coping with the loss of her mother, a mysterious man named Choi Tae-min approached Ms. Park and claimed that he could pass messages to her deceased mother. Besides being a controversial figure with cult connections, Choi Tae-min is also the father of Choi Soon-sil. Thus as Ms. Park grew close to the elder Choi, she also befriended his daughter.
Ms. Park and Ms. Choi remained close until today, when their relationship has come under immense scrutiny. The intrigue and opaqueness of the situation has given rise to a tremendous amount of speculation—the media has spread rumors of extramarital affairs and cult practices, and it has portrayed the president as little more than a puppet to a ruthless manipulator. In the midst of conflicting lies and what appears to be a coverup that runs deep into the administration, Koreans have little idea what they can believe and who they should trust. The people are in a state of shock. But should they be?
Ms. Park’s autobiography is entitled “Steeled by Despair, Motivated by Hope.” According the Washington Post, part of her appeal is “the sense that she had already given her life to the country.” Both her parents were slain for Korea. She lost her family to the country, and she rose to the occasion to become acting First Lady. She never married, instead pursuing a career in politics. She is an aloof, disconnected figure, and the history of her life is deeply entwined with the history of the country. As a result, she is seen as an almost larger-than-life figure.
But over the past few weeks, that persona has come crashing down. Her steely impregnability has been revealed to be little more than a façade. It has been discovered that the vulnerability that characterized her youth has persisted until the present. Why, though, is such a revelation so shocking? What more can be expected of someone with Ms. Park’s background? She suffered, her friend helped her, and she has continued to seek out advice. Granted, she did so irresponsibly and probably lied about it, but irresponsibility and lies are hardly surprising from politicians, and past Korean presidents have shown that the Korean political system is far from immune to corruption.
Park Geun-hye did something immensely stupid. But doing stupid things is one of the few things that every single member of our species can relate to. No cult-of-personality or mythical persona can change that. So the media should stop sensationalizing this scandal, because it is the sensationalization of Park Geun-hye that makes it so shocking in the first place. We mustn’t let ourselves be surprised to discover that our leaders are only human.