A look at the rise and fall of South Korea's president

AP News
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Posted: Dec 07, 2016 1:58 AM
A look at the rise and fall of South Korea's president

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who faces impeachment this week, rose to power with the support of conservatives enamored of the economic growth ushered in by her late dictator father decades ago.

Even before the stunning fall of South Korea's first female president over allegations that she ceded government power to a corrupt confidante, Park's four years in office have been marred by a festering standoff with North Korea, a deadly ferry disaster and claims that she tried to curb free speech and labor rights.

A look at Park's rise and fall:

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A DICTATOR'S DAUGHTER

Park's father is Park Chung-hee, one of the most divisive figures in modern South Korean history.

Some revile him as a ruthless dictator who tortured and imprisoned dissidents, while others praise him as a hero who rebuilt the country from the rubble of the 1950-53 Korean War. During his 1961-79 rule, South Korea's per capita income rose 20-fold.

After her father's 1979 assassination, Park Geun-hye hid herself from the public eye for many years. She entered politics in the late 1990s, when public nostalgia for her father flared after South Korea was hit hard by an Asian foreign exchange crisis.

As a national legislator, she became an icon of South Korean conservatives, earning the nickname "Queen of Elections" for her ability to help her party win tight elections.

In early 2013, she returned to her childhood home, the presidential Blue House, after winning the presidency.

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NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR STANDOFF

Day's before the start of Park's single five-year term, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test.

When the U.N. then tightened sanctions, North Korea unleashed a torrent of threats to attack Seoul and Washington with nuclear missiles.

Park still tried to reconcile with North Korea by offering large-scale aid shipments if Pyongyang abandoned its nuclear ambitions. She also ordered preparation for unification with the North, saying it would bring an economic "bonanza," not huge financial costs.

But her overture didn't work.

North Korea, which says it needs nuclear weapons to fight off a hostile Washington, detonated atomic devices two more times, both this year. Its nasty invective has included calling her a "prostitute."

Park eventually took a tough line, shutting down a jointly run factory complex in North Korea, the last remaining inter-Korean cooperation project.

Last year, the rivals appeared near a military clash following land mine blasts blamed on Pyongyang that maimed two South Korean soldiers.

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FERRY DISASTER

An April 2014 ferry sinking that killed more than 300 people, mostly teenagers on a school trip, battered Park's leadership.

The sinking, one of the deadliest peacetime disasters in South Korean history, triggered an outpouring of national grief and raised pointed questions about public safety.

Critics say Park's government could have saved more lives if it had acted faster and orchestrated better rescue efforts.

On the day of the sinking, Park made her first public appearance seven hours after she received the first official report about the ferry. By then, most passengers were still believed to be trapped inside the ship. But Park asked officials why they were struggling to rescue students wearing life jackets and floating on the ocean, suggesting she didn't know what was going on with rescue work.

Park's office says she communicated with officials via telephone or in writing in the seven hours before she visited a disaster office. But critics want Park to disclose more information about her whereabouts. Some lawmakers have suggested that that she might have been getting cosmetic treatment.

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BATTERED FREE SPEECH

Park has been criticized for unclear decision-making, infringing on freedom of speech and for showing the same high-handed leadership style of her father.

Last year, government prosecutors indicted a Japanese journalist who wrote about Park's rumored meeting with a man on the day of the ferry sinking; a Seoul court later declared him not guilty.

Park's government also sought to require schools to use only state-authored history textbooks, drawing criticism that she was trying to whitewash her father's rule.

Earlier, the Constructional Court ordered the dissolution of a small leftist party, and the government deported a Korean-American woman it said had praised North Korea in a lecture.

Conservatives and liberals have long argued about free speech in South Korea, which shares the world's most heavily fortified border with North Korea.

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ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL WOES

Park also failed to fire the economy as her father had.

Household debt and youth unemployment have surged and many of the big-name, family-run conglomerates that her father supported as the backbone of his economic drive are hurting.

But it was a political scandal, caused by her friendship with the daughter of her former mentor, that led to millions taking to the streets in protest and the impeachment push.

Park faces allegations that she let that friend, Choi Soon-sil, who has no official state role, manipulate government affairs and extort money from companies.

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Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at twitter.com/hyungjin1972