Park Geun-hye’s story is South Korea’s history.
The first South Korean president to be impeached, Park spent both her youth and later years in the Blue House. A life in the spotlight rich in tragedy and scandal.
Park first moved to the presidential quarters aged 10, when her father, Park Chung-hee, seized power in a military coup in 1961. He rewrote the constitution to cement his grip on power and brutally cracked down on dissent and opposition, leading many to call him a dictator.
Supporters though saw the older Park as a hero, who rebuilt the country’s economy and standing from the ashes of the Korean War.
In 1974, Park’s mother was killed in a botched assassination attempt on her father. In the years that followed, she assumed the role of First Lady, greeting world leaders alongside her father. This was Park’s first training on how to lead her country.
“With the sudden passing of my mother … heavy responsibilities and duties of the First Lady were suddenly forced upon me, it was indeed an arduous task,” she told CNN in 2014.
Five years after her mother’s death, Park Chung-hee was also assassinated – killed by his own security chief. Having lost both her parents and her home, Park withdrew from the public sphere, living what she described as “a very normal life.”
Park said she was persuaded to rejoin politics after seeing the effects of the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s. Even with her pedigree, however, the road to political power was far from easy. In 2006, she was attacked while campaigning ahead of local elections in Seoul, but continued in politics, eventually winning the Presidency and returning to the Blue House in 2013, decades after her parents’ deaths.
Park became the first female leader of a deeply patriarchal South Korean society, sparking hopes of a push toward gender equality. Her performance on the job reminded some of her father.
“According to her aides, her style of governing was more reminiscent of (Park Chung-hee), more authoritarian than South Korea’s used to in today’s 21st century democracy,” said Duyeon Kim of Georgetown University.
Just over a year into her presidency, tragedy struck again.
On April 16, 2014, a passenger ferry sank off the coast of South Korea. As the country watched live broadcasts in horror, hundreds of passengers – most of them high school students on a field trip to the holiday island of Jeju – drowned.
In all, 304 people died, and it quickly became clear that the ferry’s sinking was a man-made disaster of corruption and incompetence. Park did not address the nation until seven hours after the tragedy began.
“That was a stain on her presidency,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “There was a palpable sense at that time that she wasn’t there. It’s not as if people expected her to magically save the ship, but there was a need for leadership.”
“I believe that one should value and place the utmost value on trust and confidence,” Park told CNN before the Sewol disaster.
But if the ferry’s sinking shook public confidence in the president, a massive corruption scandal which began unfolding last year – gripping the nation and paralyzing the country’s politics – was the final straw for millions of Koreans.
Since the death of Park’s mother, questions had been raised about the influence of a cult leader, Choi Tae-min, on the young First Daughter.
A confidential 2007 US diplomatic cable, published by Wikileaks, referenced rumors that Choi had “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
In October, it emerged that one of those children, Choi Soon-sil, had the trust and ear of Park the president, and had for decades.
Choi is currently on trial for meddling in state affairs and extorting money. She denies all charges against her.
Following a three month investigation by special prosecutors, it was recommended that Park be indicted as a bribery suspect once she loses presidential immunity.
Calls for Park’s impeachment were swift after she made a short televised apology, in which it was made clear she would not step down as she did not believe she had done anything wrong.
Hundreds of thousands of people protested in downtown Seoul every Saturday throughout the brutally cold Korean winter, opposed by much smaller demonstrations calling for Park to remain.
Subsequent apologies from Park fell largely on deaf ears, and months of political stalemate and divisive public protests continued.
On March 10, a unanimous decision by the country’s Constitutional Court ended Park’s presidency for good, upholding a vote by the National Assembly to impeach her.
Two weeks later, Park was arrested and detained. Prosecutors can keep her behind bars for up to 20 days before formally charging her.
The woman who spent much of her life in and out of the Blue House has left it again – this time for good.