A Rasputin-like figure, religious cults, shamans, influence-peddling, extortion and loads and loads of Viagra. It would be tempting to think that a worse leadership couldn’t befall South Korea than President Park Geun-hye. Think again.
Let’s start at the start. Once a journalist who fought for independence under the Japanese, Syngman Rhee became the first president in 1948, then ruled as a fanatically anti-communist dictator. He massacred hundreds of thousands of suspected communist men, women and children on Jeju Island – an atrocity he repeated after the fall of Pyongyang. Then there were the 90,000 draftees who froze to death because the money to heat the barracks was embezzled, partly for Rhee’s political fund. Or the collaborators who had tortured and killed independence activists that he refused to arrest. Or the fact that he supported total war with China while telling Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand troops to get out. Or his decision to tell US forces to get out, too, for negotiating the ceasefire and then trying to sabotage the deal, for example by freeing 25,000 prisoners of war.
Despite it all, he was a symbol of victory over the Japanese and the North and was hugely popular, winning four elections. He even changed the constitution to allow for unlimited terms. Then in 1960, Rhee claimed the election for vice-president had been rigged because his friend lost. People protested, police shot some of them and Rhee resigned and fled with his Austrian wife to Hawaii where he lived the rest of his life.
Watch: South Koreans celebrate President Park Geun-Hye's impeachment
After Rhee, came the placeholder Yun Bo-seon, who was overthrown two years later by the dictator Park Chung-hee who, like Rhee, was idolised despite his brutal reign because he afforded Koreans a measure of pride.
“It’s the older generation that idolises him, though there is grudging respect even among those who dislike or opposed him,” says Carter J. Eckert, professor of Korean history at Harvard and author of Park Chung Hee and Modern Korea. “And this same generation, which had been deeply shamed internationally by annexation, colonialism and national weakness (South Korea was often referred to as a ‘basket case’ by Americans in the 1950s) felt they could finally hold their heads high as Koreans. For these benefits, many, especially in that older generation, were willing to pay a high political price.”
Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 and followed by another placeholder, Choi Kyu-hah, who held the post for one year until he was overthrown by yet another coup and replaced by yet another dictator, Chun Doo-hwan. But this time, no one was fooled.
“In the minds of most South Koreans,” says Charles K. Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia, “Chun Doo-hwan’s rule is synonymous with corruption, political oppression and perhaps above all the infamous Gwangju massacre of May 1980, which cast a shadow over his regime from beginning to end”.
More than 600 people are estimated to have been killed by police to put down an armed democratic uprising in Gwangju.
Chun’s reputation was ruined despite the fact that it was under his rule that Korea’s “economic miracle” took place, or that he brought the 1988 Summer Olympics to Seoul, and in so doing reintroduced Korea to the world. As Armstrong says, “South Koreans were increasingly unwillingly to tolerate political oppression for the sake of economic growth”.
Chun finally stepped down amid massive protests and was replaced in 1988 by Roh Tae-woo, a friend of Chun’s who had taken part in the Gwangju massacre. He finished his five-year term, but the next president, Kim Young-sam, had him and Chun arrested for treason. Chun was sentenced to death and Roh was given 22.5 years, though they were later released. As for Kim, he finished his term without a major scandal and was followed by Kim Dae-jung, who authored the Sunshine Policy, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and oversaw the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
From 2003 to 2008, Roh Moo-hyun led the country thorough an economic boom but was impeached for electioneering and, after leaving office, his brother, wife, son and aides were involved in a massive bribery scandal that ended with Roh leaping off a cliff.
Finally, there’s Lee Myung-bak, who was elected in 2008 and was involved in a number of corruption scandals before, during and after his presidency, including one involving stock price manipulation. In 2013, Korea elected Park Geun-hye, also a member of Lee’s Saenuri Party, and we know the rest.
The question then is why do Koreans elect leaders who are so often so demonstrably awful? The answer is because they have made them feel proud, as Rhee and Park Chung-hee did. But also, Koreans like underdogs. They shun elitism and embrace the Donald Trumps of the world who, despite their failings, make working-class citizens feel like someone is listening to them. Kim Dae-jung, for example, only had a high school education but ran against a former Supreme Court justice who went to the nation’s best university and was a poster boy for elitism. And Roh Moo-hyun became famous after a speech in Ulsan, where he said if the nation’s professors, lawmakers and CEOs all died on a cruise ship, the country would survive, but if the workers died, it would fall apart. With both her parents murdered and lingering nostalgia for her father, Park hit a powerful chord, too.
After all, it’s not only the fault of the elected. As a middle school student quoted recently in The Korea Times said: “The people responsible are those I run into every day – my parents, class representatives, friends, teachers and company managers.” ■