A life that revolves around the Blue House
Park Geun-hye was a first-hand witness to some of the most dramatic moments in modern Korean history, from her father’s military coup in 1961 to his assassination in 1979.
After a reclusive 18 years, she entered politics in the aftermath of the foreign exchange crisis of the late 1990s. Now she’s made Korean history yesterday by becoming the first female presidential candidate to represent a major political party.
Born during the 1950-53 Korean War in Samdeok-dong, Daegu, on Feb. 2, 1952, Park was the first child of Park Chung Hee, then an army major and Yuk Young-soo, a daughter of a wealthy family from Okcheon, North Chungcheong. One year after their first daughter was born, the Park family moved to Seoul and settled down in Sindang-dong, eastern Seoul.
Recalling her childhood, Park said she was an enthusiastic reader of the Chinese historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and admired Zhao Zilong in the book. “Come to think of it, he was my first love,” she once said. “Whenever he appeared in the book, my heart beat fast.”
One of the biggest changes in her life came when she was a fourth grader, when her father staged the coup of May 16, 1961. Two years later, he was elected the fifth president of the Republic of Korea and she became the eldest presidential daughter.
Her personality is largely influenced by her mother, sources who knew the family said. During her middle and high school years, Park was always ranked at the top of her class. Her IQ was recorded as 127, according to a test conducted when she was in the Sacred Heart Girls’ Middle School.
According to her high school records, teachers said she was “too cautious and mature,” and “quiet due to an overly cautious personality.”
Seo Im-jeong, a classmate of Park for six years during middle and high school, remembered her often bringing meagerly filled lunch boxes. “She didn’t use imported school supplies,” Seo recalled. “When her friends brought cute stationery from Japan, Park didn’t hide her envy.”
In 1971, Park entered Sogang University to major in electrical engineering. It was a new discipline, but Park said she chose the field “to contribute to the industrial advancement of the country.”
“The first lady, Yuk, wanted her to study history, but her conviction was so strong,” said Jeong Jae-hun, who served as the personal secretary to Yuk at the Blue House. “Yuk said many times that she didn’t think Geun-hye would walk the ordinary path of most women.”
When Park was in college, her father amended the Constitution in October 1972 to extend his rule and dramatically increase his power. University students protested. “I became obsessed with studying,” Park has said. “Because everyone knew who my father was, my college life was very limited.” She graduated from Sogang University’s department of science and engineering at the top of her class, recording an average 3.82 grade point average.
In 1974, she went to France to study to eventually become a university professor. Only months after studying at the University of Grenoble, she was informed by the Korean Embassy in France that she must return home immediately. At the airport, Park spotted a headline on a newspaper that read “Madam Park, Assassinated.” That was how she learned of her mother’s death.
“It felt like a sharp knife stabbing into my heart deeply,” Park recalled. “I cried nonstop in the airplane on my way back home.”
At the age of 22, Park became the acting first lady of Korea by hosting a volleyball tournament in place of her mother only six days after the funeral. On Nov. 10, 1974, she wrote in her diary, “My most important duty at this moment is showing the nation that my father is not lonely. I decided to give up all my dreams of a free and easy life as an individual.”
For the next five years, she attended events and greeted foreign dignitaries. At the same time, she wanted to know what his critics said and felt.
“After the democratization uprising in Busan and Masan [South Gyeongsang] in 1979, Park played tennis with the members of the Blue House press corps, and the journalists gave no criticism,” Choi Phil-lip, who served as Park’s secretary at the Blue House, said. “She later expressed anger that they were just trying to please her. One week later, she had another session of private talks with them, and journalists gave sharp criticisms of her father. She typed out the issues and briefed her father.”
The darkest shadow for Park as acting first lady was the role of pastor Choi Tae-min. He asked for an interview to meet her shortly after Yuk’s assassination and gave various advice. In 1975, he established the Korea Salvation Mission Association, which became the center of her activities as acting first lady. Choi, however, abused his power through his ties with Park, according to the surveillance records conducted by the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, later reveled during her first presidential bid in the Grand National Party’s primary in 2007. After rumors of power abuse spread, President Park interrogated Choi directly at the Blue House in 1977. Kim Jae-kyu, who assassinated Park Chung Hee in 1979, argued during his appeal trial that the president’s inaction toward Choi’s abuse of power was one of the reasons for his crimes.
On Oct. 26, 1979, Park went to bed early. Around 1:30 a.m., Chief of Staff Kim Kye-won informed her that the president was dead. It is widely known that Park’s first response was, “Is everything okay in the frontline of the inter-Korean border?” Even still, she was extremely shocked by another tragic assassination of a parent.
In November 1979, she left the Blue House and returned to the family’s home in Sindang-dong. Chun Doo Hwan, then chief of army security command, gave 600 million won ($529,000 at today’s exchange rate) to her. It was the remains of her father’s private slush fund.
Little is known about Park’s life in the 1980s. In April 1980, she became head of the board of directors at the Yeungnam University, but stepped down after students protested. In 1982, she became head of the Yukyoung Foundation.
Getting a fair evaluation of her father’s rule was her most important task, especially after his immediate successors treated him as a dictator. After holding a memorial event for the 10th anniversary of her father’s death in 1989, Park wrote in her diary on Dec. 30, “It was a year that I can say all the resentments accumulated over many years were resolved.”
After a power struggle with her younger sister Park Geun-ryeong in 1990, she handed over the leadership of the foundation. “After leaving the foundation, I finally began to live my own life,” she said.
The 1997 foreign exchange crisis was the event that prompted her to enter politics. “After the crisis, one question lingered in my head,” Park said. “I wondered if I would be able to face my parents after I die because I was living a comfortable life while the country was shaken.”
Eight days before the presidential election in December 1997, Park declared her support for Lee Hoi-chang, then-candidate of the Grand National Party. After the GNP’s presidential defeat, she ran in the legislative by-election in the Dalseong District of Daegu in April 1998 and won in a landslide victory.
She left the GNP and created her own party in February 2002 after conflicts with Lee. The following May, she visited the North and met with Kim Jong-il. At the time, Kim apologized to Park for the failed assassination attempt on Jan. 21, 1968 by North Korean commandos on her father.
She returned to the GNP in November 2002 to support Lee’s second attempt at the presidency. He lost again, and the conservative party faced a crisis over a massive bribery scandal. Park was elected as the party’s chairwoman in March 2004, weeks before legislative elections. She led dramatic reforms and toured the nation to appeal to voters. By winning 121 seats, the GNP managed to survive under Park’s leadership.
In August 2007, Park ran in the party’s presidential primary, but lost to Lee Myung-bak in a close match. Accepting her defeat, she supported Lee’s campaign.
Her relationship with President Lee, however, deteriorated after her loyalists faced brutal purge in the April 2008 legislative election nomination process. “I was fooled, and the nation was fooled,” she said at the time.
In 2009, Park also challenged the Lee administration’s attempt to scrap the Sejong City plan. At her resistance, the government gave up its effort.
The GNP faced another crisis after its Seoul mayoral by-election defeat last year. Park took control over the conservative ruling party once again as an emergency chairwoman. Changing the party’s name to Saenuri Party, she pushed forward vigorous reform measures, and the party managed to win 152 seats in last April’s legislative elections.
Park has never married and lives alone.
By Kim Jung-ha, Ser Myo-ja [firstname.lastname@example.org]