Born on February 2, 1952, in Daegu, in the North Gyeongsang Province of South Korea, Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979. After earning an engineering degree from the Sogang University in 1974, Park's mother was killed during an assassination attempt on Park Chung-hee. Subsequently, Park Geun-hye, at age 22, was instated as acting first lady of South Korea. In 1998, she was appointed vice chairperson of the recently established Grand National Party, and six years later, she won election as the Party's chairperson. Following a historic election on December 19, 2012, Park became South Korea's first female president. She was inaugurated in February 2013. Following her election victory, Park promised a "new era" of government and that she would be a "president for the people," however, a widespread corruption scandal in 2016 led to her impeachment and removal from office.
Park Geun-hye, South Korea's first female president, was born on February 2, 1952, in Daegu, in the North Gyeongsang Province of South Korea. She is the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who served from 1961 until his death by assassination in 1979, and former first lady Yuk Young-soo, who was shot and killed in the throes of a 1974 assassination attempt on her husband.
Chung-hee began his 18-year reign when Park was 11 years old. His presidency divided South Korea and later became a controversial part of his daughter's campaign to become elected president herself. Critics called him a dictator who carried out human rights abuses and delayed the onset of democracy in South Korea; supporters claimed that he transformed the economy and helped the country recover following the Korean War.
Thrust into Politics
Following her high school graduation, Park Geun-hye enrolled at Sogang University in Seoul, South Korea, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1974. That same year, she suffered a tremendous tragedy: Her mother was shot and killed by North Korean assassin Mun Segwang, whose bullet was intended for the president. Citizens deeply mourned the death of Yuk Young-soo, who remains widely regarded as the country's most popular and beloved first lady.
Amidst her personal grief, Park was instated as the nation's acting first lady—a title requiring newfound responsibility for a recent college graduate, who was then just 22 years old. But Park acclimated well to the political world: Early into her role as first lady, she gracefully and efficiently greeted dignitaries and conducted affairs of state, among a number of other responsibilities.
Five years after her mother's murder, tragedy struck again: Park's father, President Park Chung-hee, was assassinated at a dinner by his own intelligence chief, Kim Jae-kyu, on October 26, 1979.
Member of the National Assembly
Following her service as first lady, Park continued to flourish in the South Korean political world, becoming appointed vice chairperson of the Grand National Party in 1998. (The GNP had been established one year earlier, unifying the financially struggling New Korea Party and the Democratic Party.) Also in 1998, she began serving as a member of the National Assembly. She would be re-elected four times thereafter, serving in five consecutive national assemblies. By this time, Park had developed a clear goal of not only unifying South Korea's party system, but unifying and strengthening the nation as a whole.
In 2003, Park became chairperson of the GNP's presidential election committee. The following year, she was elected chairperson of the GNP. (The Party was struggling at the time, after leading a failed attempt to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun.) Setting her sights on the presidency in 2007, Park was a candidate for the Party in the primaries, but lost to Lee Myung-bak, who went on to win the presidential election. In 2012, the GNP was renamed the Saenuri ("New Frontier") Party. Park remained a prominent figure of the Saenuri Party, serving as chairperson of its emergency committee.
South Korea's First Female President
In a historic election on December 19, 2012, Park defeated 59-year-old liberal opponent and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in for the South Korean presidency—living up to her moniker as the "Queen of Elections" and, most notably, becoming the nation's first female president. Unmarried at the time of the election, Park has often said that she is "married" to her nation. Following her election victory, Park promised a "new era" of government and that she would be a "president for the people." She has striven for unity and prosperity for South Korea while maintaining caution when it comes to the threat of North Korean affairs. Park was sworn in as president in February 2013.
Political Scandal and Impeachment
As president, Park was criticized for her using her power to silence opposition and she quickly became one of the country’s most unpopular leaders, according to polls. In October 2016, she became embroiled in a corruption scandal which ultimately led to her political downfall. Park was accused of extortion, abuse of power, bribery, and allowing her friend Choi Soon-sil, daughter of Choi Tae-min, the late leader of a religious cult and spiritual adviser to the Park family, access to classified information. Not only did Choi have access to classified material, she also reportedly edited Park's speeches, received her overseas itinerary in advance, and even told the president how to dress.
Upon hearing the news, South Korean citizens wasted no time in expressing their shock and outrage. For six weeks, an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million protestors took to the streets demanding that Park be thrown out of office, according to Time magazine. Park’s approval rating dropped to a dismal four percent. On December 9, 2016, South Korea’s National Assembly accused Park of “extensive and serious violations of the Constitution and the law," and voted to impeach her.
Park apologized for the scandal on three occasions, and asserted that she had not personally gained from her actions. “My heart is crushed when I think I cannot resolve the deep disappointment and anger of the people even if I apologize 100 times,” she said in a statement.
Park's powers were suspended in December, but she remained in office until March 10, 2017, when a South Korean court removed her from office, the first impeachment of a democratically elected official in the country's history. Following the court's unprecedented ruling, demonstrators gathered in Seoul to celebrate her ouster, while Park's supporters protested the decision. Two were killed in a clash with police. After her removal form office, Park will no longer be protected from prosecution and may face further investigation, as South Korea navigates political uncertainty and a new presidential election to be held within 60 days.
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