World

South Korea's long-time 'princess' falls from grace

Impeached president Park Geun Hye removed from office

SEOUL: The corridors of power have been home to South Korea's Park Geun Hye as a child, de facto first lady and president.

Now, the 65-year-old leaves them in disgrace after a corruption scandal that made her the country's first head of state to be removed by impeachment.

Park grew up in the spotlight at the Blue House, the presidential complex, having a pampered life as the eldest child of military dictator Park Chung Hee.

Despite rights abuses, her father oversaw the country's rapid economic development during his 1961-1979 rule, with the first family treated as royalty by some supporters and Park dubbed the young "princess" - a nickname that endured for decades.

The assassinations of both her parents five years apart in the 1970s only further fanned sympathy for her.

Park's mother - widely praised as a dutiful wife and caring mother - was murdered by a Korean-Japanese believed to have been acting on Pyongyang's orders.

A student in France at the time, Park returned home to assume the role of first lady until her father was killed by his own security chief in 1979.

She subsequently kept a low profile for nearly two decades, until she made a successful 1998 bid to become a lawmaker as the South reeled from the fallout of the Asian financial crisis.

She became an instant political star among older conservative South Koreans who fondly remembered her mother and revered her father for helping pull a war-ravaged nation out of poverty.

Park rose quickly up the political ladder, earning the nickname "the queen of elections" due to her voters' unwavering loyalty.

Eventually she was elected the South's first female president in 2012, winning the highest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era.

But it was the family of a shady religious figure she chose as a mentor who sowed the seeds of her downfall.

Her relationship with Mr Choi Tae Min, the seven-time married founder of a cult-like group 40 years her senior, began in the 1970s when he sent her letters claiming that he had seen her dead mother in his dreams.

A US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks noted widespread rumours that he had "complete control over Park's body and soul".

He died in 1994 and his daughter Choi Soon Sil - already a friend who handled Park's daily life, including her wardrobe choices - inherited his role.

Park is accused of colluding with her for years to squeeze tens of millions of dollars from businesses, including many of South Korea's biggest firms, in exchange for governmental favours. (Related article.)

Choi is on trial for coercion and abuse of power, while Lee Jae Yong, the de facto leader of the world's biggest smartphone maker Samsung, has been indicted for bribery, corruption and other offences. - AFP

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