Monday, 12 December 2016

South Korea President Park Geun-Hye impeached: It all started with fight over puppy

The Sunday Times, 11 Dec 2016

SEOUL • Did a fight over a puppy lead to the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun Hye? A whistle-blower whose account has riveted South Koreans says it did.

Mr Ko Young Tae, the whistle-blower, told a parliamentary hearing last week that he had an argument with Ms Park's close friend Choi Soon Sil over walking Choi's daughter's puppy one day in 2014.

He said Choi became upset when she found the dog alone at his home after he had gone out to play golf.

"She was angry that I left the dog alone, and we had a fight."

Mr Ko, 40, a former Asian Games gold medal fencer, said that afterwards, he decided to expose Choi's ties with Ms Park to local news media. Choi has since been indicted on charges of extorting tens of millions of dollars from big businesses.

He had apparently videotaped Choi in 2014 giving orders to two presidential aides as if they were servants. In one scene that went viral, one of the aides wiped his smartphone on his shirt before handing it reverentially to Choi.

The footage, aired in October, left little doubt about her influence over Ms Park.



Mr Ko was also said to have an advance copy of Ms Park's itinerary for an overseas trip that Choi had received; it showed that the President wore certain colours on certain days based on Choi's recommendations.

He has become a hero to many in South Korea.

"You opened Pandora's box," Mr Sohn Hye Won, an opposition lawmaker, said during the hearing.

Local media reported that Mr Ko used to work at a Seoul "host bar", where male prostitutes cater to female clients, before he befriended Choi, 60, in 2012. In his testimony, he denied that he and Choi had been a couple.

Mr Ko said he handed the video footage to TV Chosun last year, but it was not broadcast until Oct 25.

A day earlier, on Oct 24, the rival cable channel JTBC broadcast what was considered the biggest media scoop connected to the scandal.

One of its reporters obtained a discarded tablet computer that it said had belonged to Choi. Files discovered there included drafts of 44 speeches and statements that Ms Park had given between 2012 and 2014, as a candidate and later as president. Many passages were marked in red.

Mr Ko said Choi's behaviour made him believe she was the most powerful person in Ms Park's government.

"She insulted me and acted as if her underlings were subhuman."

NYTIMES




















Park Geun Hye's fall from grace
Once adored as Daughter of the Nation, South Korean leader's popularity now as low as 4%
By Tan Dawn Wei, Assistant Foreign Editor, The Sunday Times, 11 Dec 2016

Ms Park Geun Hye was the Daughter of the Nation, adored by a generation of South Koreans nostalgic for the era when her father ruled the nation for nearly 20 years. But last Friday, the country disowned her.

Mired in deep scandal and faced with an angry million-strong mob demanding her resignation, the President's remarkably swift fall from glory hit rock bottom last Friday when Parliament impeached her and stripped her of all powers.

The widespread derision that greets her now could not be more incompatible with the splendour of her win as the Saenuri Party candidate just four years ago, when she beat her Democratic Party opponent to the presidency.



When she was elected as South Korea's first female president then, her approval rating was 51.6 per cent. Polls now show her popularity has sunk to as low as 4 per cent, the worst for any South Korean president in modern history.

Yet, with her blue-blooded pedigree, some thought she could never do any wrong.

Ms Park, 64, spent her childhood in the Blue House, the presidential residence in Seoul. Her father Park Chung Hee had seized power through a military coup in 1961.

Despite being a military strongman, he has been credited for turning South Korea into an export-focused tiger economy, overtaking North Korea, which was then the stronger economic power.

Ms Park studied electronic engineering at Sogang University and later went to the University of Grenoble to study French.

Her Western sojourn was abruptly interrupted when her mother was assassinated in Seoul by a North Korean sympathiser in 1974.

Being the eldest child, she became the country's First Lady at the age of 22, a role that would endear her to voters when she eventually ran for presidency. Five years later, her father was assassinated by his own security chief in the Blue House.

Ms Park retreated from the public eye after that, only to be persuaded by conservative party members to join politics 20 years later.

In 1998, she was elected into the National Assembly on the promise of revitalising the South Korean economy after the 1997 financial crisis. When she won the presidential election in 2012, the country looked to her to create more jobs, pull the economy up and keep North Korea at bay.

But in her four years at the helm, she was better known for her aloofness, her high-handedness in dealing with dissent ­- much like her father - and her inability to keep her rogue neighbour in check.

"She was able to become president because she effectively built the image of a trustworthy politician, who abides by principles and keeps promises. In hindsight, it is amazing how she could have done this," professor of politics Lee Joon Han of Incheon National University told the Financial Times.

"She has achieved nothing. The economy has deteriorated. Our culture is not thriving as it used to. Civic liberties and press freedoms have declined as she cracked down on dissent," he added.

The government's failure to manage rescue operations of the disastrous Sewol ferry sinking that killed 304 people, mostly students, in 2014 also dealt Ms Park's leadership a huge blow.

So, when details of her uncomfortably close ties with a controversial cult leader's daughter emerged in October, simmering anger at Ms Park's perceived ineffectual leadership bubbled over.



South Koreans were livid that their president had given her friend Choi Soon Sil access to confidential government documents and allowed her to make policy decisions. The dependence extended to Ms Park's sartorial choices, which were made by Ms Choi.

The two women's aides were also found to have used their influence to extort millions from business conglomerates, or chaebols, to set up two sports and culture foundations under Ms Choi. They later claimed they were acting on Ms Park's orders.

Record numbers turned up at mass rallies around the country for six weeks, pushing for Ms Park's resignation and Ms Choi's indictment.

In her second public apology last month, Ms Park, who never married, appealed for sympathy, saying she has been "living a lonely life" while estranged from her family.

"Living by myself, I had no one around me who could look after my personal affairs. So I resorted to Choi, who has been my long-time friend," she said solemnly, head bowed. "Looking back, I realise that over-depending on Choi has blinded my sense of objectivity and made me negligent with my surroundings. I can't even forgive myself, and the grief keeps me up at night."

South Korea expert Katharine Moon at Washington-based Brookings Institution said Ms Park's cloistered upbringing and her parents' deaths did her no favours.

"She has been very careful in her presidency to avoid any sign of impropriety in her own actions, but she ultimately was vulnerable to the human need for friendship and a confidante and didn't draw a clear line between personal needs and public responsibilities," said Dr Moon.

"I think the public and media accusations that Park was a 'puppet' of Choi is off the mark. Park has been a savvy political operator since her emergence on the political scene in the late 1990s."

Indeed, she survived a knife attack while on a campaign trail in 2006 and overcame pervasive gender inequality to rise to the top in a first for the country.

But her fate is now in the hands of nine Constitutional Court judges who will rule, within 180 days, if Parliament's impeachment vote should go through.

Additional reporting by Chang May Choon










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