President Park Geun-hye of South Korea was destined to be a political leader. She grew up in the presidential residence as a daughter of South Korea’s longest-ruling dictator, Park Chung-hee. After her mother died in a 1974 assassination attempt against her father, Ms. Park became the country’s de facto first lady. She later was a lawmaker for 15 years, crafting an image as a deft politician while helping to build a conservative party with national security and economic growth as its core message. She became the country’s first female president in 2013.
Ms. Park’s personal history and image as a corruption-free conservative have been her main political assets. But that image quickly faded in September when the news media began looking at her longtime confidante, Choi Soon-sil. Ms. Choi is accused of using her connection to the president to extort money, advance her own daughter’s career and influence government policy.
The nation was first stunned, then enraged, by the revelations. By some estimates, 200,000 people took to downtown Seoul on Saturday to demand Ms. Park’s resignation. The government has come to a standstill, and Ms. Park’s approval ratings are in the single digits.
The relationship between Ms. Park and Ms. Choi apparently began after the death of Ms. Park’s mother. Ms. Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, reportedly approached the young Ms. Park with the claim that he could make contact with her dead mother. Mr. Choi, a shadowy cult leader, died in 1994, but the connection between Ms. Choi and Ms. Park deepened over the decades.
Until recently, the public did not know just how much influence Ms. Choi had over Ms. Park. According to the left-leaning newspaper Hankyoreh, two foundations under Ms. Choi’s control were ushered through the government approval process at record speed. Some of South Korea’s top companies donated tens of millions of dollars to them, and some of that money was then funneled to Germany, where Ms. Choi owns real estate and several shell companies. In a parallel case, Ms. Choi is said to have used her connection to the president to win special treatment for her daughter.
The allegations have snowballed as journalists have continued to dig. Ms. Park is accused of allowing Ms. Choi to influence government policies, including the decision to close an inter-Korean industrial complex in Kaesong, North Korea. Ms. Choi edited Ms. Park’s speeches, reportedly placed her associates in positions of power in the government and helped her cronies win lucrative government contracts. She has been detained by the authorities since Oct. 31.
South Koreans are hardly naïve about the failings of politicians. Embezzlement and influence-peddling are common. Ms. Park, though, had always appeared above the fray, which is one reason, along with Ms. Choi’s shady family background, she has fallen so hard, so quickly.
Before this scandal, Ms. Park had cultivated an aura of rectitude. While she owns a multimillion-dollar house in the wealthy Gangnam area of Seoul, she astutely opened it to reporters to demonstrate a frugal lifestyle. She never married and is estranged from her siblings — both signs that close relatives couldn’t take advantage of her power. With her supporters declaring her “married to the nation,” Ms. Park cut a figure beyond reproach.
She has also been skillful at reminding South Koreans of her lineage. Ms. Park’s old-fashioned hairdo and dress are reminiscent of those of her mother, who is remembered as a graceful and modest first lady. The legacy of her father, associated with South Korea’s modernization, lent Ms. Park credibility as someone who could jolt the country’s flagging economy. She ran for office on a pledge of “economic democratization,” vowing to correct South Korea’s brutally fast development, set forth by her father, with a warm, maternal touch.
Now South Koreans are wondering if Ms. Park — once nicknamed the “queen of elections” for her uncanny ability to pull off victories — was not a political genius after all, and might not even have controlled her own affairs and government. As an editorial in the conservative daily Donga Ilbo asked, “Was this a Choi Soon-sil, not Park Geun-hye, administration?”
Now an object of national ridicule, Ms. Park has paralyzed the political process. The National Assembly is debating its response to the scandal instead of setting next year’s budget. Ms. Park’s conservative allies are defecting to save their own political careers. The rock-solid support she always enjoyed among voters over 60 has crumbled. One recent poll put her approval rating at 5 percent.
Last week, she apologized to the nation and said she would submit to an inquiry by prosecutors and sever all ties with Ms. Choi. In an attempt to wipe the slate clean, she has dismissed eight aides and appointed a new prime minister. The National Assembly, however, has refused to confirm the appointment, in yet another indication of the president’s diminished power.
Ms. Park’s gestures come too late. The tide turned against her when Chosun Ilbo, the nation’s largest daily, featured in its Chinese-lesson column on Oct. 25 the word for “resignation.” That word and another, meaning “impeachment,” became the top trending terms on South Korea’s two major search portals. Even her emotional apology came across as having a touch of self-interest: she blamed herself for poor judgment, but acknowledged no criminal wrongdoing on her own part. It only added fuel to the people’s fury.
Ms. Park has consistently emphasized the importance of self-sacrifice for the nation. If she is to live by her own words, she should resign. Ms. Park has become an obstacle to the progress of the nation she has repeatedly claimed to love.
Se-Woong Koo is the managing editor of the online magazine Korea Exposé.