Families in Power: South Korea’s Park Family – Areeb Asif, Canada/Pakistan


Caption: Park Chung-hee (right), with his daughter Park Geun-hye (left), Source: joindiaspora

In the Republic of Korea’s 68-year history, the country has seen 6 constitutions that have governed the land. Park Chung-hee, was a prestigious military general who assumed control of the country through a coup in 1961 and went on to serve as the South Korean president until 1979. His daughter, Park Geun-hye, followed a dramatically different path to presidency, winning over voters and winning a general election before contesting the presidential election in 2012 to surge to a victory with a support from a majority of voters in South Korea. Both father and daughter have significantly altered South Korea in many ways and though the history behind their participation in public office is vastly different, the instillment of Geun-hye more than 30 years after the end of her father’s term speaks vividly to South Korea’s political landscape.

Park Chung-hee took over the military coup that brought the downfall of the Second Republic of Korea, which was criticized for corruption and ineffective governance. He ruled as the leader of the military for almost two years and in 1963, he was declared President of the Republic of Korea through an election deemed legitimate. His eighteen years as South Korea’s head of state is a record in the country, though much of that period was highlighted by dictatorship and autocracy.

In 1965, early in Park’s presidency, he successfully normalized relations with Japan and bettered developing relations with the United States of America. Controversially, in 1967, South Korea joined the Vietnam War as Park looked to move away from a position of weakness. The Korean soldiers were paid by the United States government and South Korea received billions of dollars in multiple forms, all from the United States of America. Park was also unorthodox in his approach with North Korea, taking a position of greater aggression than his predecessors. His economic strategy drastically improved the quality of life in South Korea.

South Korea’s economic status was on the rise into the 1970s but as the benefits waned off, civilians began to grow unhappy. During his rule, South Koreans had no guarantee of  “freedom of press” or “freedom of speech”. In addition, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), which Park had a large role in creating, retained their vast powers of arrest and detention. These controversial powers were used to restrict and imprison Park’s political opponents, which explain the length of his rule. Finally in 1979, massive protests broke out against the government. Student groups were behind these protests but soon other groups got involved; this lead to attacks upon public offices. In response, Park imposed a curfew and declared martial law. Park is known to have lived through several assassination attempts, including multiple involving the North Koreans. It was of these attacks that finally ended his life in 1979, when he was shot dead by the director of the KCIA, for reasons unknown.  

His daughter Park Geun-hye ventured into politics as an assemblywoman, representing the Grand National Party, winning all four elections between 1998 and 2008. To the surprise of many Koreans, she was appointed the chairwoman of the Grand National Party (GNP) and saved them from an expected humiliating defeat in the 2004 elections. Park Geun-hye is known for her charisma which was shown in her work as chairwoman of the Grand National Party; the party won 40 out of 40 re-elections and byelections, earning her the nickname “Queen of Elections”.

In 2008, she made her first presidential bid and though she ultimately did not win the party nomination, she narrowed the margin significantly from what was shown in initial polls. Her supporters held protests and left the party temporarily; most did return eventually. The GNP started to lose support and in an emergency measure, they renamed themselves the Saenuri Party, attempting to demonstrate that the people had been heard. Park Geun-hye was instilled as the leader of this party and to the surprise of many, lead them to keeping their majority in the 2012 general election.

With her approval rating skyrocketing following the Saenuri win in the parliamentary elections, she ran as the party nominee for the president and won with the approval of 51.6% of Korean voters. Since her election, she has continued to work closely with the United States of America. In addition, South Korea and the People’s Republic of China have seen increased cooperation while Park has been able to hold an unwavering position on North Korea regardless of their aggression.

In 2016, South Korea shook with the news that President Park Geun-hye had been suspended following an investigation into her ties with Choi Soon-sil; these investigations came to the conclusion the Park, her senior advisors and Choi had collectively extorted more than 77 billion South Korean Wons from large family-owned business conglomerates by using their influence and power. While Park offered to resign, opposing parties refused and instead filed a motion for impeachment which passed overwhelmingly. Therefore, Park is now the suspended president of the Republic of Korea and her future rests with the Constitutional Court of Korea.

Park Chung-hee and Park Geun-hye came to power through vastly different routes: Park Chung-hee served time in the military and worked his way up the ranks until he was able to take the presidency while his daughter lived a privileged life and had the opportunity to work her way into the top political ranks of the country just by name. Both leaders are vastly shamed across the country but for massively different reasons; the former is viewed in a negative light because of his political philosophy of control and regulation, which may very well have developed during his time in the military, while Park Geun-hye, born into a life of opportunity, suffers for allegedly compromising the integrity of the people of South Korea.

It may be said that regardless of how they obtained the power, the family relationship has directly influenced their involvement in politics, for Park Geun-hye may not have been prone to corruption and scandal if she hadn’t grown up in a life of blessings and opportunity, provided for by her father, the third president of the Republic of Korea.

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