South Korea’s President Awaits Her Fate, Dejected, Sleepless and Alone
SEOUL, South Korea — As the protests against her have grown larger, louder and closer, and her career, reputation and presidency march inexorably toward an impeachment vote on Friday, President Park Geun-hye has kept mostly hidden from public view, gripped by self-pity and despair, and largely alone.
Cloistered in the presidential Blue House, which in a twist of fate befitting a Greek tragedy is also her childhood home, she has had few visitors, aides said.
At 64, she has never married or had children. Her brother and sister have been estranged from her for years. Her three most trusted aides have been fired over the corruption and influence-peddling scandal that now threatens to undo her presidency. One has been jailed. Park’s closest friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, is also in jail.
Park has stopped attending Cabinet and presidential staff meetings. She has been dejected, she said in one public apology, losing “countless nights” of sleep and at times regretting ever becoming president.
“She has grown noticeably wan,” said Chung Jin-suk, the floor leader of Park’s governing party, Saenuri, who visited her in the Blue House on Tuesday. “She said a few times that she was sorry to our lawmakers.”
Since the scandal began to break into public view in October, over allegations that Park conspired with Choi to extort tens of millions of dollars from big businesses and to help Choi, who had no official post, manipulate government affairs from the shadows, Park has rarely been seen in public.
She last met a foreign visitor on Nov. 10, when she greeted a presidential delegation from Kazakhstan, the same day she spoke on the phone with President-elect Donald Trump.
She has delivered three televised apologies, each only several minutes long, sometimes choking with emotion. “My heart is crushed,” she said, “when I think I cannot resolve the deep disappointment and anger of the people even if I apologize 100 times.”
She was said to have heard the weekly protests calling for her to leave office. Those protests have grown from 20,000 people in central Seoul six weeks ago to about 1.7 million on Saturday, who came within a few hundred feet of her compound, shouting, “Evict her!”
“The president heard the people’s voices with a heavy heart,” Jung Youn-kuk, Park’s spokesman, said after one of the protests, though he did not clarify whether she heard the protesters’ shouts through her window or, as one South Korean news outlet has reported, watched them on TV.
Beyond that, her aides have declined to discuss her daily routine or her mood these days, except to say that she was taking the crisis gravely and was doing her best to deal with it.
They said she had invited Christian leaders and a top Buddhist monk to visit her last month to offer advice on the crisis. Her office did not disclose what they told her, except that the monk had quoted Buddhist scripture, saying, “A tree bears fruit when it sheds flowers.”
For many in South Korea, the flower has already fallen. As Park’s approval rating has plummeted, shop owners across the country have pulled down pictures of her they once hung proudly on the wall.
For Park, the Blue House itself is ablaze with memories.
She first moved there at age 9, when her father, Maj. Gen. Park Chung-hee, seized power in a military coup in 1961. At 22, after her mother was killed in an assassination attempt against her father, she became his acting first lady. In 1979, after her father was assassinated amid widespread protests against his dictatorship, she left the presidential palace, only to return as president in 2013.
In between, she lived a secluded life in southern Seoul, in a house plastered with photos of her dead parents and adorned with their relics.
“Her home was more like a museum for Park Chung-hee,” Choi Sang-yeon, an editorial writer at the South Korean daily JoongAng Ilbo, wrote recently of his visit there a decade ago. “It looked as if her clock had stopped in the 1970s and she spent much time communicating with her dead father.”
“她的家就是像一个朴正熙博物馆，”韩国报纸《中央日报》(JoongAng Ilbo)的主笔崔尚勇（Choi Sang-yeon，音）最近写到自己十年前去那里的经历时说。“看上去她的时钟好像停在了70年代，她把大量时间用在和去世的父亲交流上。”
Choi described the atmosphere there as “heavy and dark.”
In her 1993 memoir, “What If I Were Born in an Ordinary Family,” Park wrote of her tragic family history and her sadness: “In my life’s scale, the worthwhile times have never outweighed painful ones.”
在1993年的回忆录《如果我生在普通家庭会怎样》(What If I Were Born in an Ordinary Family)中，朴槿惠写到家族历史悲剧和自己的悲伤时说：“在我的一生中，愉快的时光从未超过痛苦的时光。”
In the end, Park’s cloistered life may have set the stage for her political implosion.
She has said she often spends evenings alone reading government reports. She shuns one-on-one meetings with senior aides. Her former cook told a South Korean magazine that she usually ate alone, watching TV.
She has said she cut ties with her brother and sister to prevent nepotism, a bane of past South Korean presidents. She has two dogs, white Jindos, a Korean breed prized for its loyalty.
Her trusted friend and adviser all these years was Choi Soon-sil, whose family had befriended her while her father was still in power.
After becoming president, Park has said that she continued to rely on Choi to look after her wardrobe and other personal affairs.
Prosecutors said Choi did far more than that, and they have indicted her on extortion and other charges. While Park cannot be indicted while she holds office, the indictment of Choi identified Park as a criminal accomplice, a first for a president.
In her apologies, a grim-faced Park has said she could not forgive herself for letting her guard down with Choi, who she said had helped her during her “lonely” and “difficult times.” But she admitted no legal wrongdoing.
By this time, few Koreans trusted her. According to opinion polls, she had become the least popular president since South Korea began democratizing in the late 1980s.
She has tried to restore a semblance of normalcy to her besieged administration by making appointments of ambassadors and deputy Cabinet ministers. Her government also pressed ahead with signing a controversial military intelligence sharing pact with Japan.
It all may be too little, too late, and the crowds outside the Blue House on a recent Saturday evinced little sympathy.
“If you are so lonely,” some chanted, “why don’t you go and join Choi Soon-sil in her prison cell?”