The following is adapted from “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.”
The strange scandal that has resulted in the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is now widely known. The president allowed a long-time confidante with no official government role named Choi Soon-sil to view secret government documents, enrich herself via influence-peddling and run a shadow government behind the president.
Less well-known is the bizarre — and tragic — story of Park Geun-hye’s early years. By the time she was 27, Park had lost both of her parents to assassins. She found herself, unmarried, estranged from her siblings, largely alone in the world and susceptible to the influence that eventually would spell her downfall years later.
Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a South Korean military officer who took over a desperately poor South Korea in a coup in 1961 and is largely responsible for setting the foundation of the modern Korea we see today. On the one hand, he put the policies in place that built mighty Korea companies, such as Samsung, Hyundai Motor and LG. On the other hand, he rewrote the nation’s constitution to declare himself president for life and tortured political opponents.
It’s hard enough for any child to grow up in the presidential spotlight. But growing up the daughter of a dictator like Park Chung-hee was another thing altogether. Pretty much all you need to know about the kind of man Park Geun-hye’s father was can be learned from this strange, surrealistic story: On Aug. 15, 1974, South Korea’s Independence Day, Park Chung-hee was giving a speech in the National Theater of Korea, in Seoul. Shortly after it started, a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer burst into the hall firing a gun, trying to kill the president.
He rushed toward the hall’s stage, firing wildly at the podium. He missed the dictator but shot his wife and Park Geun-hye’s mother, Yuk Young-soo, who was sitting nearby, in the head. After the gunman was subdued and Park’s gravely injured wife was carried from the stage, Park, amazingly, resumed his speech. When he finished, he picked up his wife’s shoes and purse and left. His wife died that night.
At the time, Park Geun-hye was was studying at the University of Grenoble, in France. When news of her mother’s death reached her, she came home, leaving her studies for good. At 22, she became South Korea’s de facto first lady, filling in for her mother’s official duties.
Park Geun-hye’s grief in the wake of her mother’s death was exploited by a con-man who styled himself as a pseudo-Christian spiritual leader, named Choi Tae-min. Calculating and malevolent, Choi wrote Park Geun-hye a letter saying he had spoken to Park’s dead mother. Choi reassured Park that her dead mother was still watching over her and had merely moved aside to allow Park Geun-hye to follow her path to greatness.
How an adult could fall for something this ludicrous and nakedly opportunistic seems beyond belief, until you consider the realities of Korea in the 1970s. The nation, once called the “Hermit Kingdom,” was still largely closed to the outside world; it was almost impossible for ordinary Koreans to travel outside the country. Koreans who wanted to learn English from Western magazines and ordered them through the mail found parts of them redacted by hand by government censors before they arrived. Second, Korea has a long a deep shamanistic tradition that still survives today, to a lesser extent. Fortune-tellers were a part of life and shamans preyed on impoverished Koreans’ dreams of wealth and success.
Finally, as the dictator’s daughter, Park Geun-hye was wrapped in an even tighter bubble, unable to control much of what she heard or learned. At the command of President Park Chung-hee, who saw Christians in his country as a threat to his authoritarian regime, “Minister” Choi Tae-min had set up a government-approved form of pseudo-Christianity to defuse the power of real Christians. As such, Choi had received the stamp of approval from the dictator and got full access to his daughter. It was during this time Park Geun-hye became friends with Choi Tae-min’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, opening the door for her lifetime of influence over Park Geun-hye.
Five years after Park Geun-hye’s mother was killed, in 1979, her father the dictator was fighting to preserve his power. Koreans around the country were protesting his heavy-handed policies and brutal treatment of opponents. They demanded democracy. There was a power and ideological struggle within the president’s inner circle, as well. One the one side was his personal bodyguard, a thuggish sort who, under the guise of protecting the president, had assembled a personal army of men and weapons that rivaled the nation’s actual military. In opposition was the head of the South Korean intelligence agency, who, though no dove, opposed the bodyguard’s suggesting of “mowing down the protestors with tanks.”
One night in October 1979, at a dinner in the Blue House, the South Korea presidential office and residence, the director of intelligence could take it no more. Whether it was a planned or impulsive coup attempt is still up to debate, but the intelligence head and some conspirators shot and killed President Park Chung-hee, his brutal bodyguard, and several others.
After her father’s death, Park withdrew from public life for nearly 20 years, and the details of that time are still largely unknown. When she re-emerged, she ran successfully for the national legislature in 1998, beginning her elected political career that led to the presidency in 2012.
Park Geun-Hye, whose fate now hangs before a Constitutional Court, which will decide on the validity of the national legislature’s impeachment vote, may not be a victim now. She made the choices that allowed Choi access and power she should never have had. But, nearly 40 years ago, mourning the assassinations of her mother and father, cut off from the outside world and under the influence of a powerful father-figure in an unforgiving patriarchal culture, it’s easier to have a little sympathy for the young woman she once was.