Many relieved at impeachment of scandal-hit leader

South Korean demonstrators shoot off firecrackers to celebrate the impeachment of Ms Park Geun-Hye during a candlelit rally demanding her arrest.
South Korean demonstrators shoot off firecrackers to celebrate the impeachment of Ms Park Geun-Hye during a candlelit rally demanding her arrest.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL• • When she cast a vote to elect South Korea's first female president five years ago, housewife Helen Jeong, 33, was hoping that Ms Park Geun Hye would bring change to a male-dominated society.

"But I regretted the decision very much, because it turns out she made life hard for everyone except maybe for herself and her aides," said Ms Jeong, referring to a massive corruption and influence-peddling scandal that led to Ms Park's impeachment by the country's top court last Friday.

Hundreds of thousands of Park supporters may be out in the streets decrying the impeachment, but far more feel relieved that the country's most scandal-tainted president has finally been booted out.

The latest Realmeter poll showed that 86 per cent of 1,008 respondents agreed with the court's ruling, and 92 per cent said people should accept its decision to uphold impeachment.

This marks the second time the 65-year-old has been forced to leave the presidential Blue House prematurely. The first time was in 1979 after the assassination of her father, then President Park Chung Hee. The iron-fisted leader created South Korea's economic miracle but it was, critics say, at the cost of democracy.

Hers is a life full of twists, tragedy and political drama. She grew up behind presidential palace walls after her father seized power in a coup in 1961.

Ms Park was attending school in France in 1974 when she received news that her mother had died taking a bullet meant for her father.

She returned home as de facto first lady, a role she played until her father's death.

After leaving the Blue House, she led a quiet, low-profile life until the 1998 financial crisis drove her to return to politics with a mission to save her country.

Rising through the ranks in politics with the support of conservatives who fondly remember her father, Ms Park, who is single, once famously said: "I'm married to the Republic of Korea.... South Koreans are my family."

When she became the country's first female president in 2012, Ms Park swore to be incorruptible and even cut ties with her siblings to avoid nepotism.

As it turned out, it was her confidante of 40 years, Choi Soon Sil, who eventually caused her downfall.

In a scandal that broke last October and triggered massive protests, Ms Park was accused of allowing her friend, who was not a government official, to meddle in state affairs and even colluded with her to extort money from conglomerates, including Samsung, for Choi's gain. Over 40 people, including Choi and Samsung heir Lee Jae Yong, have been arrested and indicted.

Businessman Justin Jang, 37, was among those who had very little sympathy for the former leader, saying the scandal had exposed the extent of corruption in South Korean politics.

"All those involved in this madness should go to jail," he said.

Entrepreneur Hailey Shin, 31, spent many Saturdays joining the weekly candlelight vigil calling for Ms Park's resignation. When asked to rate her presidency on a scale of one to 10, Ms Shin said "minus 10".

She added: "I have no sympathy for her. I don't even want to call her president, if that's possible."

Chang May Choon

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 12, 2017, with the headline 'Many relieved at impeachment of scandal-hit leader'. Print Edition | Subscribe