Park cuts an isolated figure in Blue House

Ms Park, who described her younger days in the Blue House as "prison-like", finds herself in solitary confinement there now.
Ms Park, who described her younger days in the Blue House as "prison-like", finds herself in solitary confinement there now.

Impeached South Korean leader faces long period within walls of presidential complex

SEOUL • South Korea's presidential Blue House has been something of a family home for Park Geun Hye, but the luxury residence has now become a place of solitary confinement for the impeached, isolated leader.

Today marks the fourth anniversary of her electoral win in 2012 to become her country's first female president.

Ms Park has twice called the Blue House home: first as the daughter of late military strongman Park Chung Hee and then as president herself - a period of 20 years in all.

Currently president in nothing but name and with no official duties to perform, Ms Park faces a months-long empty schedule within the walls of the complex as she waits for the final act of her impeachment drama to play out.

The only regular encroachment from outside is the deafening chanting of hundreds of thousands of protestors who have taken to the streets of Seoul every Saturday for the past two months to demand that she resign or be removed.

Rally orgranisers said around 600,000 took to the streets on Saturday. Police put it much lower at 60,000 and said that about 30,000 Park loyalists attended their own separate rally to demand that the impeachment Bill be thrown out.

Ensnared by a corruption scandal involving an old friend, she was impeached by Parliament just over a week ago - a move that stripped away all her substantial presidential powers and transferred them to her prime minister.

She is allowed to retain her title and stay at the Blue House while the Constitutional Court considers whether to validate the impeachment - a process that could take up to six months.

But her movements are restricted to the residential part of the 250,000 sq m compound. Her offices, some 200m from her living quarters, are off limits.

A planned trilateral summit with the leaders of China and Japan, that was supposed to be held this month in Tokyo, has been postponed indefinitely.

Aides say she spends her time resting and preparing her impeachment defence for the court, but otherwise there are scant details about her activities.

On Friday, her legal team formally submitted a 24-page rebuttal of the impeachment charges to the court, arguing that the impeachment vote should be overturned by the Constitutional Court. The court has 180 days to review it.

"She must feel like the whole world has turned its back on her," said Professor Lee Jun Han, a politics professor at Incheon University. "I don't think she has the luxury of travelling outside the Blue House, or even resting in peace at home," he said.

Ms Park's father, Park Chung Hee, ruled the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979 and his eldest child enjoyed a pampered life, although in her memoirs she described her early days at the Blue House as "prison-like".

She never married and has no children, and critics say her sheltered upbringing left the 64-year-old aloof and out of touch.

In a televised apology she gave in early November as the corruption scandal snowballed, she spoke of her "lonely life" as president and how it had led her to place too much trust in her long-time confidante, Choi Soon Sil.

The impeachment vote in Parliament focused on charges that she colluded with Choi in forcing a number of South Korean conglomerates to donate tens of millions of dollars to two dubious non-profit foundations that Choi controlled and allegedly plundered.

In testimony to an ongoing parliamentary investigation into the Choi scandal, Ms Park's aides cemented the image of her as a solitary figure who liked eating alone.

A former chief of staff who served her for two years said he often went an entire week without meeting her at all - an experience echoed by other senior policy advisers.

"Ms Park was almost always in her residence, whether on Sundays or a weekday, unless there were public events like a Cabinet meeting or a meeting with advisers," a former presidential chef said in a recent interview.

Ms Park's staff now report to the prime minister - and acting president - Mr Hwang Kyo Ahn, who is expected to give the annual year-end national presidential address.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2016, with the headline 'Park cuts an isolated figure in Blue House'. Print Edition | Subscribe