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(News Focus) Park finishes grim chapter in history of S. Korean politics

2017/03/10 11:23

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- Park Geun-hye, the nation's first female leader, finished a tumultuous chapter in the history of South Korean politics Friday with the Constitutional Court's ruling removing her from office -- a grim coda to her 20-year political life.

After three months of grueling deliberations, the court upheld the impeachment resolution that the National Assembly passed in December over a massive corruption scandal involving Park and her longtime confidante Choi Soon-sil.

The highly charged verdict forced Park out of office, setting the stage for a rare presidential by-election in May. Had she been reinstated, Park would have been able to serve out her five-year term until next February.

This photo, taken on Nov. 14, 2016, shows Park Geun-hye speaking during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Nov. 14, 2016, shows Park Geun-hye speaking during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. (Yonhap)

Analysts said her downfall underscored the "power of citizens" to check political leaders and hold them accountable for their misdeeds. Since the scandal drew keen attention in October, citizens have staged massive, yet peaceful, rallies across the country to pressure Park to bow out.

"Her departure highlights that the presidential post is no longer a sanctuary," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, told Yonhap News Agency. "This case spoke volumes about how much influence the public sentiment can have ... even over a national leader that they themselves have elected."

   As for the main cause of Park's fall from grace, observers pointed to her "go-it-alone" leadership style and lack of willingness to communicate -- even with her senior secretaries -- as well as a governance structure where inordinate power is granted to a single leader.

"Since the very start of her presidency, the claim has persisted that she doesn't communicate with people," Myongji University politics professor Kim Hyung-joon said.

"The ruling party's tendency to toe the presidential line, and Park's apparent thought that she doesn't need to listen to others ... these are the critical reasons for Park's political fiasco," he added.

The presidential scandal, which first emerged through a media report in July, gained the full spotlight in late October when the local cable network JTBC disclosed the content of a tablet PC allegedly used by Choi.

The device contained a series of files that revealed the nitty-gritty of the scandal, which sent Park's approval ratings into a tailspin, left her leadership in tatters and sparked nationwide protests calling for her departure from office.

This photo, taken on March 4, 2017, shows citizens staging a street rally in downtown Seoul to demand Park's resignation over a corruption scandal. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on March 4, 2017, shows citizens staging a street rally in downtown Seoul to demand Park's resignation over a corruption scandal. (Yonhap)

Park is alleged to have allowed Choi -- without any government post or security clearance -- to meddle in important state affairs and colluded with Choi in extorting money and favors from local conglomerates, such as Samsung Group. Both have denied the accusations.

The president is also purported to have neglected her duties during a 2014 ferry disaster that killed more than 300 passengers, mostly young students.

Park will soon face a prosecutorial probe over these allegations. While in office, she evaded prosecution as the Constitution stipulates an incumbent president is immune from indictment except in cases of treason or insurrection.

The scandal is arguably the worst setback she suffered during her political life marked by a series of tribulations, including her defeat in a 2007 presidential primary race and a knife attack in a 2006 electoral campaign.

In the thick of the sprawling scandal, Park scrambled to contain it through a flurry of political efforts beyond verbal denial, such as touching on the highly polarizing issue of a constitutional revision, but to no avail.

This photo, taken on Oct. 24, 2016, shows Park Geun-hye proposing a constitutional revision during her speech at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Oct. 24, 2016, shows Park Geun-hye proposing a constitutional revision during her speech at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Park set foot in politics with her victory in a 1998 by-election in Daegu, 302 kilometers south of Seoul, on the coattails of her high-profile father -- late former President Park Chung-hee.

Park's father is credited with laying the foundation for the country's dramatic economic ascent, though he has been heavily criticized for his authoritarian rule. The general-turned-leader led the country for some 18 years after taking power in a 1961 military coup.

Over the course of her political life, Park had built a reputation as a "principled, trustworthy" politician due in large part to her insistence in 2009 to stick to a controversial plan to relocate a number of key government offices to Sejong City.

But such a reputation was later overshadowed by what detractors called her "dogmatic" leadership style.

"Citizens have wanted Park to actively inherit the merits of her father's leadership while improving the weak points of her father's presidency. But she, after all, failed to live up to the public's expectations about the nation's first female leader," Jun said.

"Park was not able to grasp the changing trends and was not flexible enough to read people's minds," he added.

With the monthslong political drama having left behind seemingly insurmountable social and political divisions, the biggest task facing Park's successor is bringing together a nation facing a host of security and economic challenges, pundits said.

"The entire nation needs a period of soul-searching, and politicians, in particular, must explore ways to promote national integration and unity rather than pointing fingers at one another," said Lee Chung-hee, politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

Park's presidency that began in February 2013 had been beset by a series of misfortunes, such as the influence-peddling scandal involving her former aide, the 2014 deadly ferry sinking and Pyongyang's relentless provocations, including two nuke tests last year.

Park's impeachment has put most of her signature policy initiatives on ice. They include schemes to revitalize the sluggish economy; reform the financial, education, labor and public sectors; build trust with North Korea; lay the groundwork for unification; and promote peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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