‘The whole country will hold their breath’: former South Korean president Park Geun-hye prepares for trial
Millions of people took to the streets to demand her removal, culminating in her impeachment by parliament and sacking this March by the country’s top court
Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye is due to go on trial on Tuesday over the spectacular corruption scandal that brought her down, the country’s third former president to appear in the dock.
The fallen head of state will be taken from the detention centre where she is being held to Seoul Central District Court, setting the stage for the final act of the drama that has engulfed her.
As well as conservative Park and the multibillionaire businessmen who allegedly bribed her, the controversy’s cast list includes the daughter of a shaman, plastic surgeons, and an Asian Games gold medallist fencer turned male karaoke host, among others.
As revelation after revelation emerged last year, millions of people took to the streets to demand her removal, culminating in her impeachment by parliament and sacking this March by the country’s top court. Soon afterwards she was detained and indicted.
Her stunning downfall – when she was elected in 2012 she secured the highest vote share of any candidate in the country’s democratic era – capped months of political upheaval in Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
The trial is expected to last for months, and could shed new light on the ties between Park and the bosses of the family-run conglomerates who allegedly bribed her, among them Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong and Lotte chairman Shin Dong-bin.
It will be held only two weeks after the country last week elected left-leaning former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in – who lost the 2012 poll to Park – as her successor.
Tuesday’s opening session will be Park’s first public appearance since she was taken into custody in March, and hundreds of people flocked to the court to enter a lottery for seats in the public gallery.
“Public interest in the trial is huge. It is the first trial of a former president for more than two decades,” said Kim Byung-min, a Seoul political commentator and professor of public administration at Kyunghee University.
Park, 65, is the third former South Korean leader to stand trial for corruption following Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo, who served jail terms in the 1990s for charges including bribery and treason.
“It will be a momentous moment after months of political chaos and power vacuum,” Kim said. “The whole country will hold their breath to watch the trial unfold.”
Park faces 18 charges including bribery, coercion and abuse of power for offering policy favours to tycoons who bribed her secret confidante at the heart of the scandal.
The friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shadowy religious figure who was Park’s mentor for years, is accused of using her presidential ties to force top firms including Samsung to “donate” nearly US$70 million to non-profit foundations which she then used for personal gain.
Park is also accused of letting Choi, who has no title or security clearance, handle a wide range of state affairs including senior nominations and even her daily wardrobe choices.
Choi is currently on trial for bribery and abuse of power, as is Samsung’s Lee, accused of bribing her in exchange for policy favours from Park. Park has denied all wrongdoing, blaming Choi for abusing their friendship.
Park grew up in the presidential palace as the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, and rose to power largely on the back of his continuing popularity among the aged voters who benefited from rapid economic growth under his tenure.
His mixed legacy of economic growth and political repression has been a subject of heated debates for decades.
One of the key charges against Park – often accused of echoing her father’s authoritarian streak – is abuse of power for ordering a “blacklist” of artists who voiced criticism of her in a bid to starve them of state subsidy.
The scandal also highlighted the cosy and corrupt ties between the country’s business and political elites that have endured for decades – another legacy of Park Chung-hee’s rule.
It triggered greater calls to reform the powerful family conglomerates known as chaebol, that had long been criticised for running their global businesses with little scrutiny from regulators and investors.
New president Moon tapped into the renewed anger on the campaign trail and has nominated a prominent chaebol critic as new head of the powerful antitrust watchdog agency.
Park’s trial is seen as issuing a verdict on “many of the deep-rooted problems” clogging the country’s economy and politics, Chun Yu-ok, a former senior lawmaker of Park’s party, wrote on her blog.
“The trial should be the first step in our rejection of the dark, corrupt past and the opening of a new era with a fair and just society,” she wrote, “and a stern lesson that no one – however powerful – can be above the law”.