Park Geun-Hye Political princess ends up in courtroom

Park went on trial Tuesday over the corruption scandal that made her the country's first head of state to be removed by impeachment.

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Handcuffed and on her way to court, the fall from grace for ousted South Korean president Park Geun-hye has been steep play

Handcuffed and on her way to court, the fall from grace for ousted South Korean president Park Geun-hye has been steep

(POOL/AFP)
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The corridors of power were home to South Korea's Park Geun-Hye as a child, de facto first lady, and president. Now she resides at a detention centre, and is addressed as "the accused".

Park went on trial Tuesday over the corruption scandal that made her the country's first head of state to be removed by impeachment.

Now 65, Park grew up in the spotlight at the Blue House presidential complex, enjoying a pampered life as the eldest child of military dictator Park Chung-Hee.

Despite rights abuses, he oversaw rapid economic development during his 1961-1979 rule, with the first family treated as royalty by some supporters and Park dubbed the young "princess" -- a nickname that endured for decades.

The assassinations of both her parents five years apart in the 1970s only further fanned sympathy for her.

Park's mother -- widely praised as a dutiful wife and caring mother in the still traditionalist society of the day -- was murdered by a Korean-Japanese believed to have been acting on Pyongyang's orders.

A student in France at the time, Park returned home to assume the role of first lady until her father was killed by his own security chief in 1979.

She subsequently kept a low profile for nearly two decades, until she made a successful 1998 bid to become a lawmaker as the South reeled from the fallout of the Asian financial crisis.

As president, Park Geun-Hye enjoyed the trappings of life in the highest office in the land, with all the respect that it accorded play

As president, Park Geun-Hye enjoyed the trappings of life in the highest office in the land, with all the respect that it accorded

(AFP/File)

She became an instant political star among older conservative Koreans who fondly remembered her mother and revered her father for helping pull a war-ravaged nation out of poverty.

Adept at taking advantage of the nostalgia for them and the sympathy for her, she frequently peppered her campaign speeches with the phrase, "After I tragically lost my parents to assassins' bullets."

Virgin Queen

Park rose quickly up the political ladder, earning the nickname "the queen of elections" due to her voters' unwavering loyalty.

The fact that she never married and was estranged from her two siblings was part of her appeal, in a country where leaders had often been embroiled in major corruption scandals involving relatives.

"I'm married to the Republic of Korea. I have no children. South Koreans are my family," Park once said, citing her role model as Elizabeth I of England -- known as the 'Virgin Queen'.

Eventually Park was elected the South's first female president in 2012, winning the highest vote share of any candidate in the democratic era.

But it was the family of a shady religious figure she chose as a mentor who ultimately sowed the seeds of her downfall.

Thousands of people took to the streets of South Korea to protest what they saw as corruption in Park Geun-Hye's presidency, a mass movement that culminated in her eventual removal from office play

Thousands of people took to the streets of South Korea to protest what they saw as corruption in Park Geun-Hye's presidency, a mass movement that culminated in her eventual removal from office

(AFP/File)

Her relationship with Choi Tae-Min, the seven-times-married founder of a cult-like group 40 years her senior, began in the 1970s when he sent her letters claiming that he had seen her dead mother in his dreams.

His influence grew until a US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks noted widespread rumours that he had "complete control over Park's body and soul".

He died in 1994, and his daughter Choi Soon-Sil -- already a friend who handled Park's daily life including her wardrobe choices -- inherited his role.

Park and Choi -- who appeared alongside her in court Tuesday -- are accused of colluding for years to squeeze tens of millions of dollars from South Korean businesses, including many of the country's biggest companies, in exchange for governmental favours.

The scandal was too much even for many of her supporters, prompting millions to take to the streets calling for her ouster and sending her once-bulletproof approval ratings to record lows.

As allegations swirled, she was also accused of abuse of power, and negligence over the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 -- when more than 300 people, mostly schoolchildren, drowned in the South's worst disaster for decades.

Detention centre for South Korea's elite play

Detention centre for South Korea's elite

(AFP)

Parliament impeached Park in December, when many in her own party voted against her, and the constitutional court upheld her dismissal in March.

Days later she left the Blue House, returning to her private home to cheers from a few loyal supporters.

Within weeks she was arrested, and the latest stop on her journey is Seoul Central District Court, Room 417.

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