Park Geun Hye: From president to prisoner - in just three weeks

VIDEO: REUTERS
Ms Park (centre) being driven from the Central Prosecutors' Office in Seoul to the detention centre yesterday.
Ms Park (centre) being driven from the Central Prosecutors' Office in Seoul to the detention centre yesterday.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Swift downfall of South Korea's Park, as she is arrested over influence-peddling scandal

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

A judge yesterday ordered the arrest of Ms Park Geun Hye, who was ousted on March 10 for violating the Constitution and meddling in corporate affairs. The swift moves to detain her after she lost power - and immunity - followed months of street protests fuelled by anger over business and political ties dating back to her father, former president Park Chung Hee, that underpinned the nation's rise in the 1970s.

Long an icon of South Korea's conservatives, Ms Park campaigned on a promise to repeat her father's "miracle of Han river", an era of rapid economic growth spurred by funnelling state resources into a handful of family-run companies known as chaebol. 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 Professor Park Tae Woo at Korea University in Seoul, who is not related to them. "But she didn't realise 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."

Ms Park, 65, says she has not taken a single penny for herself from the donations that firms like Samsung Electronics 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.

 
 

Yesterday, as she was driven to the Seoul Detention Centre through a barrage of media flashbulbs, Ms Park stared straight ahead, apparently trying to maintain her composure.

According to normal procedure, she would have been processed - including being fingerprinted and having her mugshot taken - changed into prison garb with her prisoner number on the chest, and put in a cell. Under South Korean law, prosecutors now have up to 20 days in which to indict her.

Ms Park is in the same detention centre as Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong, who is accused of bribing Choi in return for government backing of a 2015 merger that helped him consolidate control over South Korea's biggest conglomerate. He denies wrongdoing.

Ms 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 yesterday, with a spokesman for front runner Moon Jae In saying her detention would help clean up South Korea's image and turn the page on its "painful history". Meanwhile, Mr Hong Joon Pyo, a candidate for her Liberty Korea Party, urged people to forgive her.

Despite the public outrage, breaking up the relationships between the chaebol and political leaders once and for all will not be easy.

Professor Gilles Hilary at George town's McDonough School of Business said: "The connections between the state and chaebol are deep. The strength of these connections makes it unlikely that they will disappear in the short run."

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'From president to prisoner - in just 3 weeks'. Print Edition | Subscribe