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South Korea’s Nostalgia for Dictatorship Has (Mostly) Predictable Results

How fond memories of authoritarianism fueled the democratic rise of a deluded and corrupt president.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 12:  South Korean President Park Geun-Hye speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Office on January 12, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Park outlined her policy plans for the new year.  (Photo by Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - JANUARY 12: South Korean President Park Geun-Hye speaks during a press conference at the Presidential Office on January 12, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Park outlined her policy plans for the new year. (Photo by Kim Min-Hee-Pool/Getty Images)

South Korean democracy is facing what may be the political scandal of the century. Over the last several weeks, it has been revealed that President Park Geun-hye, the head of state for the 11th-largest economy in the world, was essentially being controlled by Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a cult leader who claimed to speak with the soul of Park’s dead mother. The extent of Choi’s control was staggering, and new revelations come every day.

According to the latest claims, Choi pushed the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to pressure Cho Yang-ho, the CEO of the Hanjin Group, into resigning from his post as the chairman of the Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Cho had refused to pay into the “K-Sports Foundation” operated by Choi and lost his post as a result. Using as many as 10 burner phones, Choi reportedly gave direct orders during cabinet meetings by relaying her demands to a presidential aide.

Park’s numbers took a nose dive. In a poll released on Nov. 4, Park’s approval rating sank to incredible 5 percent, the lowest mark in the history of Korean democracy. (The lowest level for her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who was hardly beloved, was 21 percent.) In a poll from Nov. 1, an astounding 67.3 percent of the respondents said Park should resign. Across Korea there are nightly protests drawing hundreds of thousands of people.

So why was Park elected in the first place? Hardly anyone could claim that Park was the most qualified person for the job. It was no secret that during her political career, Park was not the sharpest tool in the shed. To be fair, there were some moments when Park demonstrated real leadership as a politician. In 2004, for example, Park led her party to an unlikely victory in the National Assembly election at the height of then-President Roh Moo-hyun’s popularity.

But as a presidential candidate, Park appeared simple-minded, tongue-tied, and prone to gaffes. She was notorious for speaking in short, childish sentences, compulsively relying on her pocket notebook to a point that critics dubbed her the “Notebook Princess.” Once, she accidentally announced that she was “resigning from the presidency” when she meant to say “resigning from the National Assembly to run for the presidency.” She was judged to have lost roundly against opposition candidate Moon Jae-in in all three televised presidential debates.

Even Park’s association with the Choi family was a known issue — at least among the cognoscenti — when she was running for president. Park Geun-hye’s relationship with Choi Soon-sil’s father, Choi Tae-min, was an issue when she ran a failed campaign for president in 2007 and again when she prevailed in 2012. Park’s mother was assassinated in 1974, and her father in 1979, when she was 27. That left Choi Tae-min, the head of a shamanistic cult with Christian trappings, one of the few stable figures in her life. The relationship was so well-known that the then-U.S. ambassador to Korea specifically commented on it in 2007, in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” No matter — Park would go on to win the hard-fought presidential election, winning 51.6 percent of the votes.

She won because she had a unique selling point — her family. Even her most ardent fans would admit that nearly all of her appeal was based on nostalgia for her father, Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979 while murdering dissidents who demanded democracy. When Park Geun-hye’s victory became clear in the 2012 election, her supporters celebrated in the streets while holding up pictures of Park Chung-hee. But why would South Koreans, rightfully proud of their peaceful shift from authoritarianism to democracy in 1987, vote for a leader whose main appeal was being the daughter of a dictator?

To be sure, not all South Koreans yearned for the days of dictatorship. Since 1987, commitment to democracy has been the main dividing line in the landscape of Korean politics. Those who had struggled to democratize Korea became liberals and progressives, while those who had shrugged their shoulders and profited throughout the authoritarian era became conservatives. Prior to Park and Lee Myung-bak, South Korea had a decade of liberal presidents, with Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. (In South Korea, the president serves a single five-year term.)

But for Korea’s conservatives, the appeal to the authoritarian era has remained strong. Older Koreans still remember the days when most people were starving. They remember, too, that the authoritarian rule of Park Chung-hee brought exponential economic growth, which delivered the country from hunger. In the minds of the older generation, the elder Park’s authoritarianism also brought a sense of order and national unity against North Korea — an important consideration for the generation that experienced the ruinous Korean War. For prosperity and security, Korean conservatives were willing to sacrifice democracy.

In this political landscape, Park Geun-hye offered something that no one else could: the most direct link to the authoritarian era. In the soft economy following the 2008 global financial crisis, the majority of the Korean people counted on Park to deliver the same results as her father once did. Knowing this, Korea’s conservative leaders propped her up as their champion, looking away from her gaffes and strange associations. Of course, the promised economic miracle did not happen. Park Chung-hee’s rule came at the tail end of Asia’s first great postwar boom, while the younger Park’s world is trudging through the Great Stagnation. As a result, Park Geun-hye’s numbers suffered — but not by much. Park could always rely on her “concrete floor” of approval rating, made up of around 30 percent of Koreans who remembered her father’s days fondly and were willing forgive her mismanagement of the country.

Park had plenty of authoritarian touches of her own, from banning an opposition political party for supposed ties with North Korea to deporting Korean-American activists. But her connection to the era of dictatorship that had elevated her finally led to her downfall. With “Choi-gate,” even the concrete floor gave way to the lowest approval rating in Korean democratic history. With the Choi scandal, the truth about Korea’s authoritarianism was finally laid bare. There is no magic in authoritarian rule, only the nauseating privatization of increasingly arbitrary power. Park was not a great stateswoman who was unconstrained from the burdensome strictures of democracy, but a pathetic figure doling out her presidential power to a psychic in exchange for emotional comfort. Like the Koreans who voted her in, the orphaned Park was selling away her authority in exchange for a false consolation from the past.

In a way, then, this sordid affair of Choi Soon-sil and Park Geun-hye may yet represent the final triumph for Korea’s democracy. True, Korean democracy could not prevent the rise of an obviously unqualified politician like Park. But it was the country’s civil society (most notably, students of the prestigious Ewha Womans University who protested the fishy admission of Choi Soon-sil’s daughter) that revealed the truth about the relationship. A lesser democracy might not have been able to handle a scandal of this magnitude. Amid the chaos, there could have been a military coup d’état or a series of violent protests that degenerated into riots.

But not so with Korea. The nightly marches involving hundreds of thousands of people have been admirably orderly, with no hint of violence. Although a majority of Korean citizens are expressing their anger by calling for the president’s resignation or impeachment, the leaders of the main opposition party have been patient, signaling their willingness to participate in the interim government to hold everything over until next year’s scheduled presidential election. Choi has already been forced to surrender significant amounts of power.

The statement by Woo Sang-ho, the National Assembly majority leader from the Minjoo Party, shows how far Korean democracy has come: “Our goal is the change in administration. We are not interested in toppling; our goal is to build up. We must judge this administration through election and establish hope through election.” And that’s something we can all be hopeful for — a presidential election in Korea in which people are finally dispelled of their misty-eyed nostalgia for authoritarianism.

Photo credit: KIM MIN-HEE/Pool/Getty Images

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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