SEOUL — Park Geun-hye’s first appearance on South Korea’s public stage was as a figure of despair, a person to be pitied.
At age 22, Park washed the blood out of her slain mother’s dress after a North Korean sympathizer killed her while trying to assassinate her father, then the country’s military-strongman president.
Five years later, after her father, Park Chung-hee, was shot by his intelligence chief, she washed the blood out of his shirt and tie.
“I couldn’t help but think of the time I washed my mother’s clothes, covered in blood,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Steeled by Despair, Motivated by Hope.” “I collapsed to the ground.”
She was not just the daughter of the nation; she was the orphan of the nation.
The sense that she had already given her life to the country helped propel the unmarried Park, whose image is something between Ice Princess and Virgin Queen, to the presidency almost four years ago.
Now facing the biggest challenge of her tenure, Park tried to tap into that vein of pity Friday when she delivered an emotional apology for a snowballing influence-peddling controversy.
“This is a big part of her story: suffering for the nation,” said John Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “She’s still trying to make people feel sorry for her, but it’s bizarre because this is a political scandal of her own making.”
Park, 64, appeared on television Friday for the second time in 10 days to try to quell public fury over revelations that she relied on a confidante with no official position for advice on everything from major policy speeches to what to wear to state events. Making matters worse was that the woman, Choi Soon-sil, 60, is the daughter of a religious cult founder and seemed intent on enriching herself.
“Since I arrived in the presidential office, I’ve lived a lonely life,” said a solemn Park, dressed in a brown suit reminiscent of a hair shirt, at times on the verge of tears.
She tried to explain how she had come to depend on Choi. Her parents were dead and she was estranged from her brother, who had abused drugs, and from her sister, who came under investigation this year for fraud.
“I cut off all ties with my family members out of fear of unfortunate incidents. I had no one nearby to help me with personal matters, so I turned to Choi Soon-sil for help,” she said.
Choi and two key aides were detained by prosecutors this week, and Park’s approval rating sank to 5 percent, according to Gallup Korea.
Saying she took full responsibility for the scandal — in which Choi is accused of embezzling much of the $70 million she raised from big businesses for her two foundations, trading off her connections with the president — Park said she would submit to an official investigation “if necessary.”
But the show of contrition fell short of many people’s expectations.
“Instead of getting to the heart of the problem, it sounded like she was just trying to paper over the current controversy,” said Cha Hyun-ho, a glass-factory worker from Park’s home town. “People want fundamental change,” said Cha, holding a sign in central Seoul that read “Park Geun-hye resign.”
After thousands protested here last weekend, another large-scale demonstration is scheduled for Saturday.
In her address, Park did not say how she planned to govern for the remaining 14 months of her presidency or how she would direct her new officials.
Park made a mistake in defining the problem as simply a personal one of mismanaging her friend, said Lee Dong-kwan, who served as senior secretary for public affairs to Park’s predecessor, fellow conservative Lee Myung-bak.
“Park Geun-hye campaigned for office saying she was a person of principle and trust,” Lee Dong-kwan said. “It turned out that her administration was the complete opposite. That is why people are angry and feel very betrayed by her.”
South Korea is no stranger to political controversies. In fact, every president since democratization in 1987 has been smeared by corruption allegations in some way, usually involving family members.
But this crisis feels different, many South Koreans say, possibly because it taps into two smoldering social issues: gender and class.
“I think there is a tendency for her to be criticized because of her gender,” said Choi Jae-hee, as she sat in a central park with a friend. “Considering her princesslike image and her relatively weak power, she’s vulnerable to attack.”
She cited a Korean proverb — “When the hen crows, the home falls apart,” roughly meaning that women should keep quiet — to describe how older generations might view the situation.
But her friend, Jeong Hye-woon, although agreeing that Park appeared like a fragile “scarecrow,” did not think that gender played much of a role.
“I think she deserves to get all this criticism,” Jeong said, describing Park as unqualified to be president and her confidante as unqualified to give advice. “She’s used the country like it’s her private possession.”
Then there is the issue of class in this country obsessed with status.
Park’s confidante is seen as a “nobody,” said Se-Woong Koo, managing editor of Korea Exposé, an independent website.
“People are asking: Did she deserve to have this relationship with the president?” Koo said. “The political elite are not so shocked that this is happening. They’re shocked that she didn’t choose one of their own.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.