Nepotism and the Elite of South Korea: What President Park Geun-hye Represents

Park Geun-hye has been many things throughout her life.

She was, at first, the daughter of South Korea’s late dictator Park Chung-hee. Then in 1974, at the age of 22, she became the first lady of South Korea after the assassination of her mother. At the age of 27, Park became an orphan after the murder of her father, the president of South Korea at the time.

Three decades later, in 2013, she became South Korea’s first female president.



Most people currently living in Korea have at least a vague idea of the recent political turmoil in the country. After weeks of demonstrations, and the participation of tens of thousands of people burning tens of thousands of candles, demanding the impeachment of the president in candlelight protests outside the Blue House, the National Assembly voted to impeach Park from office on December 9, 2016.

Proceedings are far from over, however. The National Assembly’s actions only suspend Park’s power for 180 days — at the end of which the Constitutional Court of Korea will irrevocably vote whether to accept or reject the impeachment.


But what is most fascinating about these events is the reason why Koreans seem so infuriated with President Park.

As a result of the lack of credibility of the Korean press, foreign newspapers have spun the current state of affairs in Korea as “controversial” and obscure, printing headlines such as “Park Geun-hye: Tragedy of South Korea’s first female leader” (BBC) — to imply that the harsh measures towards Park are blatant sexist attacks against the first female president of the country. But Korea is hardly on a witch hunt for women who dare to hold power. Nor is Korea focused on the corruption of Park’s administration. South Koreans are, sadly, considerably used to (and almost expectant of) corruption in their political leaders.


What the Korean people are infuriated by is President Park’s utter lack of competence and autonomy.

Discontent Koreans largely attribute Park’s incompetence to her elite privilege. They see Park as having been born with a “golden spoon” in her mouth (a term used to describe those born into wealthy and privileged families).

Park’s childhood was virtually sealed off from the common people; she was understood as a lonely emblem of the aristocracy of South Korea. But what her lonesome, albeit privileged, upbringing revealed throughout her presidency wasn’t the headstrong nature of a woman whose isolated upbringing forced her to be independent and self-sufficient, but a child-like adult who seemed to be able to do very little by herself.


Her political ineptness revealed itself most obviously in the recent political scandal involving herself and her close confidant Choi Soon-sil (often referred to as the Korean Rasputin), who was accused and prosecuted for overtly using her connection to Park for economic gain. More than the corruption, however, what the public found most shocking was the extent of Choi’s influence over Park — from selecting her wardrobe, to editing her speeches, to even influencing important political decisions. The relationship between Park and Choi gave the public insight into how truly Park was dependent on the opinions and decisions of those around her. To the Korean public, the scandal revealed Park’s utter incompetence as not only a political leader, but as a grown adult.

The Korean people were outraged that such a weak individual, so easily swayed by the influence of an unqualified confidant, had become the most powerful person in our country by means of connection and legacy.

As the scandal unfolded, more and more accounts of Park’s gross incompetence during her presidency were recalled. The most significant of which was Park’s baffling absence during the 2014 Sewol tragedy, in which the sinking of a ship resulted in the deaths of hundreds of passengers — the majority of which were high school students. Park’s absence during the accident, infamously referred to as “the 7 missing hours,” generated outrage amongst Korean citizens; people were baffled by a political leader who not only chose to do nothing, but disappeared, during a national crisis.



Perhaps the rejection and dismissal of President Park has more to do with Korea’s growing discontentment with nepotism than anything else. Though many foreign newspapers like to associate Park’s impeachment with sexism in Korea, sexism has very little to do with the current circumstances. Koreans find the topic of Park’s gender trivial and uninteresting; they are far more concerned about the gilded cage she has grown up in, and seems to have never escaped from.

The people of South Korea have, in recent times, become disillusioned by a society that seems to value connections over qualifications, a working environment so competitive that there is always somebody waiting to take your place at the slightest hint of failure on your part; they are disappointed in their political leader, who in recent circumstances, has revealed her incompetence to the utmost degree and has consequently shown herself to lack the qualifications of a position she attained by means of connection and legacy.

After becoming the first daughter, first lady, then the President of South Korea, Park has now become the symbol for the unforgivable nepotism that runs rampant in the country. She represents both incompetence and the corruption of the elite, and her life seems to embody the cautionary tale of what happens when the two coincide.

The decision of the Constitutional Court at end of the 180 days of Park’s suspension of power will determine whether or not Park will be permanently removed from office. But, no matter the decision of the Constitutional Court, it is doubtful that Park will be able to retain any credibility from this point forward. When Korea turns its back on an individual (and it does often), expect little mercy.

Originally published on 10 Magazine on Jan 31,2017.
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