Supporters of South Korea's former president Park Geun-hye shout during a rally calling for her release outside the Seoul Central District Court on April 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Jung Yeon-je

After a trial which she refused to attend, the impeached and detained former president Park Geun-hye was today sentenced to 24 years in jail and hit with fines totaling 18 billion won (US$17.5 million) after being found guilty of 16 charges of bribery, corruption and coercion.

The verdict is the culmination of a drama that started in late 2016 with snowballing demonstrations that led to her impeachment.

The presiding judge of Seoul Central District Court gave Park, who has boycotted the trial since October and did not appear in the court, one week to decide on whether to appeal or not.

Park, 66, was the first female president of South Korea, and the first to be successfully impeached. She was found guilty of 16 out of 18 charges, largely related to bribery, coercion and abuse of power.

Dramatic but dour end

Most of the evidence cited by the judge was testimonials given by her former aide, Senior Presidential Secretary for Policy Coordination An Chong-bom, and business leaders. Much of it related to her crony Choi Soon-sil, who established two foundations, Mir and K-Sports, which shook down many of Korea’s biggest corporations including Samsung Group, Hyundai Motor, Lotte Group, CJ, KT, POSCO and SK for donations.

In addition to the bribery raps, Park was found guilty of leaking 47 state documents, including 14 sensitive documents, to Choi, and of overseeing blacklists of artists whose political views the conservative president opposed.

Choi has already been sentenced to 20 years in jail, and An to six.

Today’s verdict was relayed via live TV footage – another first in the history of Korea jurisprudence. High public interest in the trial was cited as the reason for the filming of what proved to be a surprisingly sterile affair: a presiding judge reading out a two-hour-long statement.

Notably absent in the courtroom was the defendant herself, or any of her advocates. Park, who had pleaded not guilty on all counts, has boycotted the trial since last October, having fired her legal team. She said her impeachment and trial was a “political plot” against her.

It is not even clear if Park was aware of the proceedings as they took place. It is believed that she does not have a TV in the cell where she has been detained since March, soon after exiting the presidential Blue House following her impeachment.

Several hundred conservative protesters, largely elderly and some in camouflage uniforms, rallied outside the court waving Korean and several US flags. Protesters also carried a coffin with a skeleton in it, with a photograph of the presiding judge stuck on it, and a nail driven through its skull. But with a heavy police presence, there was no violence reported.

Bedchamber leadership and a dubious associate

The boycotting of her trial reflects what appears, from considerable evidence, to have been the de facto boycotting of her own presidency.

Rumors of odd behavior began circulating after the ferry Sewol sank in April 2014 with the loss of 304 lives, mainly teenagers on a school trip. Only recently have full details emerged of her whereabouts on the day. While the evidence indicates that she could not have been able to save any of the victims if she had exercised more robust leadership, given the timing, it also revealed that she spent most of the day in her bedroom, receiving information via phone calls and visits from aides and Choi.

Her actions on that day seem to have been emblematic of her leadership style. Park had always been considered a backdoor operator rather than a public politician or great communicator, but revelations that emerged at the end of her term that she rarely even met her own ministers shocked the public.

But if she cut a lonely figure, she was at least considered, prior to taking the presidency, a savvy politician. However, once ensconced in the presidential Blue House, which she knew well from her youth, she made a range of high-profile political missteps, including overseeing the blacklist of artists and suing a Japanese reporter who had questioned her whereabouts on the day the Sewol sank.

Her downfall, however, resulted from her shadowy long-time association with Choi. A shabby looking, middle-aged matron who – damningly in Korean society, which is more used to Ivy League-educated, be-suited male political operators – Choi lacked even a basic college education. Choi’s dubious morals extended from abusing her alleged lover, a former Olympic athlete, to engaging in a range of corrupt and coercive practices based on her relationship with Park. A public uproar was ignited when it was discovered that Choi’s equestrian daughter had won privileged access to the prestigious Ewha Women’s University, and been given a racehorse by Samsung.

Choi’s late father had been a controversial figure who headed a now-defunct religious cult, and the younger Choi became a close friend of the young Park. As details of their relationship emerged in the autumn of 2016, rumors circulated that Choi, who advised Park on matters including her dress and speeches, exerted some kind of spiritual or even supernatural influence. Many Koreans believed that Choi – who held no official government portfolio – was the real power behind the president, running the country like a voodoo priestess with Park as her puppet.

Tragic childhood

Given her tragic childhood, Park may well have been susceptible to influence; she almost certainly suffered psychological damage due to her tragic youth. Her mother was killed in a shooting incident by a North Korea-linked assassin who aimed at, but missed, her father, ex-general and president Park Chung-hee, in 1974. Her father was subsequently assassinated by his own intelligence chief in 1979.

Her brother was known as a drug addict, but Park, who never married and was not known to have any romantic dalliances, reemerged on the political stage in 1998, winning a seat in the conservative stronghold of Daegu in Korea’s southeast. Subsequently, as head of the Grand National Party, she was dubbed “queen of elections” for her savvy politicking and went on to take the top office in the land after defeating liberal Moon Jae-in in the 2012 presidential election.

Park was a darling among many elderly voters, who remembered the way her dictatorial father, who, after seizing power in a coup, oversaw the astonishing transformation of South Korea from an agrarian backwater to industrial powerhouse. But she had many enemies in the wing of her party, which had previously supported former businessman Lee Myung-bak, who was president from 2008 to 2013.

Rise and fall of the right

Lingering anger over the Sewol tragedy and the revelations about Choi’s entitled, corrupt behavior, plus her shadowy role in Park’s administration, provided fertile ground for left-wing organizations and civic groups to organize protests. As the crisis grew, Park’s inability to effectively communicate to the public or otherwise defend herself became apparent. The protests snowballed into a popular phenomenon, with millions of citizens rallying in central Seoul on successive weekends in what is now called “The Candlelit Revolution.”

Park, abandoned by both her party and the conservative media, was impeached by the National Assembly in December 2016. The assembly’s move was upheld by the Constitutional Court in March 2017.

Her downfall paved the way for the rise to power of liberal Moon Jae-in, who Park had narrowly defeated in the 2012 presidential election. Today, Moon, whose dynamic approach to North Korean diplomacy during the recent Winter Olympics has led to a string of upcoming international summits, is now firmly established in office, while South Korea’s once-powerful right wing is in utter disarray.

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