Park Geun-hye's Shame, Public's Vengeance

Park Geun-hye's Shame, Public's Vengeance

Se-Woong Koo
Se-Woong Koo

It may be human nature to seek revenge anywhere, but in South Korea the impulse is plainly on display. Former president Park Geun-hye was arrested Friday in connection with the Choi Soon-sil scandal. She is now a prisoner at Seoul Detention Center. She will soon be charged and tried. Justice, it appears, is being served.

For some South Koreans, justice doesn’t seem to be enough. Over the past weekend, Park’s hair, mugshot and even anal examination were in focus.

It’s natural to be curious about the incarceration of prominent figures. It was no exception when Samsung Electronics vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong was detained in connection with the same scandal: Media reports speculated as to what kind of space he would occupy and what food he would eat. Lee is one of the country’s richest men, and the contrast between his normal lifestyle and the one he would lead behind bars made for a good story.

In the case of Park, all of these factors applied. Media outlets competed to report on what kind of cell she was moving into, but everyone’s mind was on what would happen to her signature hairstyle, which she wouldn’t be able to maintain in prison. (Inmates are banned from possessing hairpins.) Even Yonhap News Agency dedicated an article to her appearance, running side by side pictures of her before and after the arrest warrant was issued. The latter image showed Park on the way to Seoul Detention Center, looking tired and without makeup, her locks cascading limply.

One news anchor, at SBS CNBC, tried to defend the obsession with Park’s hair. “To some people, her up-do might have meant more than just a hairstyle. Even when the Sewol ferry disaster required urgent attention, the president’s up-do remained unchanged.”

He has a point: Park’s elaborate coiffure has come to stand for incompetence and indifference. And has anyone seen her with her hair down, literally? (Even after moving out of the presidential residence, Park regularly received her two main hair stylists at home in Gangnam.)

But to say curiosity and symbolism were the only reasons for the fascination would be wrong. The word “mugshot” began trending on South Korean internet portals not long after news of the arrest broke. Left-leaning Voice of the People reported, “The public is hoping for her mugshot to be revealed,” even while recognizing that it’s rare in South Korea for authorities to disclose such pictures. The outlet also quoted some internet users as saying “It will be the most satisfying picture yet,” “At last her hair comes down,” and “I will make it my [mobile phone] wallpaper.”  

The point seems to be to inflict many indignities on Park, a woman famously concerned with her image and privacy. On a radio show hosted by Kim Eo-jun, a well-known leftist commentator, a former Minjoo Party lawmaker discussed how Park would be strip-searched on entering the prison, emphasizing that the process would be “very humiliating.” A lawyer on the same show added that the procedure would include an anal examination as new arrivals “may be hiding harmful weapons or drugs.” These remarks weren’t made out of concern for Park; the details were added for listeners who wanted to imagine the process and draw voyeuristic pleasure from it.

Even Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong, former Culture Minister Cho Yoon-seon and former presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-Choon reportedly received the same treatment in prison. Their ordeals, too, formed parts of the ongoing domestic domestic coverage, which veers on the vindictive.

There is a revenge factor to this popular discourse. The men and women who have fallen from their perches over the Choi scandal are famously rich, powerful or both. They were once untouchable. Now they are at the mercy of the justice system, and of the angry public. And the public wants more than to passively observe the criminal proceedings against them. It wants to shame them, and shame them deeply.

I brought this up with a friend who was less than sympathetic to Park’s plight. He said, “Don’t you remember how she treated the Sewol families?” She was certainly a cruel leader. After winning the election on her “economic democratization” campaign pledge and maternal image, Park wielded power ruthlessly. She tried to break unions, displayed little tolerance for criticism and fell back on the familiar “North Korea is to blame” rhetoric in justifying her myriad shortcomings. Her treatment of the Sewol families was merely a symptom of her compassionless character.

But the current attacks by progressives on Park, starting with the notorious painting “Dirty Sleep” that portrayed her as a nude courtesan, have exposed the left as little better than the right, which is usually the faction known for deplorable language and abusive treatment of opponents. The fight for democracy that began with candlelight vigils was a noble one. Now it stands at risk of degenerating into an exercise in pettiness.


Cover Image: former president Park Geun-hye on the way to Seoul Detention Center (Source: YTN News)

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