The Rise and Fall of South Korean
President Park Guen-hye
By Cameron Wu
She was South Korea’s most important woman and the 11th most powerful woman in the world. Now she lives in a solitary jail cell, eating $1.30 meals and sleeping on a foldable mattress on the floor.
At first, Park Guen-hye’s presidential election ignited global praise. As the first female president of South Korea, many believed that Park represented a ground-breaking, barrier-shattering achievement that would improve and diversify society. Not only would her position create space for greater female representation in politics, business, and media, but it would also enable more women to use their voices to change the world. However, Park’s impeachment and subsequent arrest pose questions as to how society interprets singular female narratives as representative of all women.
In 2013, Park Geun-hye (박근혜) was elected President of South Korea, representing the conservative Saenuri Party. Not only was she the first female president of South Korea, but she was also the first woman to be popularly elected as Head of State in East Asia. Running on a platform of economic improvement, national security, and strategic reconciliation with North Korea, Park promised to promote national growth and South Korea’s international status. Her background as a 14-year term as a member of the National Assembly and the daughter of former South Korean president Park Chung-hee (박청희) further cemented her political reputation. Many note that her presidential election was particularly progressive given high levels of gender equality in East Asia.
As president, Park Geun-hye hoped to foster “a new era of hope and happiness for all the people” through economic stability, international diplomacy, and social welfare. In her first year as president, her approval rating reached 63% and she was named 11th on Forbes’ “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.” However, her approval rating declined to 30% over the next few years of her presidency, as tensions with North Korea remained stagnant and her administration was blamed for oversight leading to the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy that killed 304 people. These tensions set a fragile relationship between the Park Administration and the South Korean public.
In 2016, Park was accused of corruption and collusion after allegations emerged of Park granting a close friend, Choi Soon-sil (최순실), access to confidential government decision-making processes. Choi was also found guilty of using her relationship to Park to pressure large companies such as Samsung into funding Choi’s non-profit foundations in exchange for government favors. In early 2017, Park was officially impeached by the Constitutional Court for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws,” as her acts “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” In April 2018, Park was found guilty of 16 charges of bribery and coercion, and was sentenced to 24 years in prison and $17 million in corruption charges. Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in (문재인) commented: “We need a national cleanup. We need to liquidate the old system and build a new South Korea.”
Park was not only the first female president of South Korea, but she was also the country’s first democratically-elected leader to be impeached. Undoubtedly, her controversial legacy as a world leader poses serious questions for the future of women on global platforms. Often times, when women break out of de facto gender norms, they are held to higher levels of scrutiny than male counterparts in equal positions of power. Rather than simply serving as a president, Park serves as a president and a woman. Because she is the sole example of a female president in South Korea, her failure as a political leader could be interpreted as an overarching failure of all women to be successful leaders.
In the end, I believe that the story of Park Guen-hye leads to one conclusion: we need more representation of women. Whether in government, business, medicine, academia, or really any industry, women bear disproportionate burdens of representing their gender in the workplace. While women who earn titles as historic “firsts” represent important movements toward gender equality, one example of a woman in power is not sufficient for representing all women. One narrative cannot capture the multiplicity, diversity, and intersectionality of women’s experiences around the world. As such, we need to keep empowering women to achieve and keep providing spaces for women to do so.