SEOUL — The first major tragedy in Park Geun-hye’s life was a shooting that took place at the National Theater in downtown Seoul nearly 40 years ago. She didn’t even witness it. She was studying in Grenoble, France, at the foot of the Alps, when she got a worried call from the South Korean Embassy. The official didn’t give any specifics.
“The person only said that something had happened to my mother,” Park wrote in her 2007 memoir, “and that I needed to return home.”
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.
The bullet that killed Yook was a misfired shot. A 22-year-old gunman had tried to assassinate the president, who was giving a speech to mark a public holiday. The gunman rushed down the center aisle of the theater, popping off one quick shot, then firing several more as he ran toward the stage. Presidential guards rushed from the perimeters, firing back and smothering the gunman in a big pile-up.
By then, the first lady had already slumped to the floor of the stage, blood soaking through her orange dress, though it remains unclear if she was shot by the gunman or by a member of the president’s security team.
After his wife had been rushed from the stage, the famously stoic Park Chung-hee responded to the chaos by continuing his speech. The 1,500 in the theater were stunned. But they gradually worked up a rousing applause, according to news accounts.
Yook Young-soo would die hours later of a gunshot wound to her head. The gunman was Moon Se-kwang, a Japanese-born communist who kept photos of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in his apartment. Moon later testified that he’d received instructions for the assassination through Chongryon, the association for North Korean residents living in Japan. The staunch anti-communist government in Seoul took the gunman’s word with little investigation, but years later there has been no evidence to refute his story.
The botched assassination attempt is just one of many bizarre and violent moments in South Korea’s recent history. Park’s five years as first lady ended with another assassination attempt on her father — this time a successful one. In 1979, Park Chung-hee was shot at a private dinner party by his intelligence chief. The spy chief later said in court that he killed Park in part to allow South Korea to become a free democracy.
After leaving the Blue House, as South Korea’s presidential palace is known, Park stayed out of the public eye for nearly two decades. She has two younger siblings — a brother and a sister — neither of whom is involved in politics. But she jumped back into that world in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis, citing a patriotic mission to “save the country.” And by 2004, she’d become head of South Korea’s main conservative party.
Earlier tragedies taught Park, who is single with no children, to stay calm and keep busy with work. In 2006, when Park was stumping for another candidate in a local election, a man attacked her with a utility knife. She returned to work days later, with a four-inch gash across her face that still leaves a scar.
Park has had to answer questions about her father and the baggage from her past throughout her political career, most notably during her campaign last year and in an earlier, failed run for president in 2007. She has often seemed conflicted about how to address her past. Last year, she apologized for her father’s coup and his crackdowns against protesters. She’s also credited him with engineering South Korea’s rapid economic rise.
Most political analysts say that Park, who will be South Korea’s first female president, has generally benefited from the image she built decades ago.
“Her tragic personal life was very crucial for her to win the election” in December, said Han Hong-koo, a historian at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul.
But she has also had to deal with decades-old controversies. As first lady, Park worked closely with a pastor, Choi Tae-min, serving as the public face for his humanitarian and missionary projects. Many of those projects were later embroiled in corruption and bribery scandals.
She also inherited nearly two-thirds of her father’s personal slush fund of 960 million won (or $905,000, at the current exchange rate), which investigators found in his office after his assassination. Park Chung-hee’s successor as president decided she could have the money — which at the time was enough to buy “30 apartment buildings,” as far-left presidential candidate Lee Jung-hee said in a televised presidential debate last month.
Park said in previous years that she had received that money legally, and during the presidential debate pledged to eventually donate it “back to society.”
“My father had just been shot to death and I wasn’t sure how my younger siblings and I would survive,” she added. “I didn’t think it through and just accepted [the money].”
Many Koreans say Park has to be careful about her history, because it presents fodder for a pair of opposite portraits.
“All Koreans, when we see Park Geun-hye, we can see two faces simultaneously,” Hahm said. “When Park Geun-hye talks about the national economy, economic security, we can see the face of her father. But when she talks about helping the poor, welfare, happiness of the people, we see the face of Yook Young-soo.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.