The details that Park would soon learn redirected her life suddenly and irreversibly, ending her hopes of becoming a professor, flinging her for the first time into the public spotlight, and setting her on a course that would lead to the nation’s top office, the presidency, a job into which she’ll be sworn next month.
Park lost her mother, first lady Yook Young-soo, in the assassination attempt that missed its real target — her father, President Park Chung-hee. The shooting forced Park to replace her much-admired mother, becoming de facto first lady.
The 1974 event sits at the core of Park’s complicated, modern-day image. The shooting gave Park the mystique of a Kennedy, one whose grief was public and shared by a nation. It also gave her the chance to learn about power by working alongside South Korea’s most powerful postwar leader — a man who obtained the presidency in a military coup, rewrote his own constitution, then jailed or killed those who criticized it.
Today, older Koreans remember and admire the way the young Park, then 22, responded to her mother’s death. They say it was the first time, but not the last, that Park decided to put the national interest above her own.
Park wrote in her memoir that her mother’s death turned her existence “upside down.” Park has given no sign that tragedy shaped her modern-day political profile, that of a conservative with more moderate views to expand welfare spending and cautiously re-engage with North Korea. But she did write that the event changed her beliefs about what she’d do with her life. “Maybe it was my destiny,” she said, to not become a professor.
At the time of the shooting, Park had been taking language courses and living with a French family. By the time she made it to the airport in Paris, at least a day had passed, and she still didn’t know the specifics of the tragedy. According to her memoir, she only patched together what had happened when she picked up a newspaper at a terminal newsstand.
When she arrived in Seoul, her father was waiting for her at the airport.
Six days after her mother’s funeral, she attended her first public event as the first lady: a volleyball tournament.
She soon was responsible for all of her mother’s duties, shaking hands with military leaders, hosting visiting foreign heads of state, visiting hospitals, managing business projects. Her hardest job was less specific: She had to be the graceful counterbalance to her father, who rarely smiled and whose popularity always lagged far behind that of Yook.
“Her destiny was transformed from a little girl who studied hard into a main player” in the country’s political system, said Hahm Sung-deuk, an acquaintance of Park’s and a scholar of presidential history at Korea University. Hahm added that Park still uses her speeches to emphasize the concepts of what he called “patriotism and loyalty to the nation” that became part of her image years ago.