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Speculation grows over disgraced ex-President Park Geun-hye's possible return

Feb. 5, 2024 - 14:38 By Yoon Min-sik
Park Geun-hye, a former president of South Korea, attends the inauguration ceremony of President Yoon Suk Yeol on May 10, 2022. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Ex-President Park Geun-hye held a book event for her autobiography in Daegu on Monday afternoon, fueling speculations that the disgraced former leader of South Korea is seeking to make a comeback as an influential figure in the country's politics.

Park addressed the public during the event's Q&A at a hotel in Suyeong-gu in the city of Daegu -- her birthplace, where she still has sizeable support despite having been impeached and convicted on 16 charges of corruption in 2018. She talked for about 10 minutes, answering only pre-selected questions.

While the event was to promote her new book, it held some significance in South Korean politics as Park, daughter of former military dictator President Park Chung-hee and once-touted the "queen of elections," still has considerable influence among conservative voters in the country. It marked one of the few occasions where Park has made a public appearance, after being pardoned for her crimes back in 2021.

Former presidents of South Korea are not barred from working as public officials or members of the National Assembly, but it is conventional for them not to pursue political careers after the presidency. Most of them do, however, exert their influence indirectly through public statements or support of other politicians.

Members of the pro-Park faction, however, downplayed the connotations of the event. Rep Cho Won-jin, one of Park's most vocal supporters and among the few who opposed her impeachment, told local media not to read too much into the event.

"Some people have raised suspicions about why she is (holding the event) 60 days before the (parliamentary) election, but I don't think that is her intent," he said, arguing that Park was not using the book event to influence the general elections in April.

Park, 72, was the first South Korean president to be impeached from her position in 2017 after five months of candlelight demonstrations, and was later found guilty of 16 of 18 corruption charges and imprisoned in 2018.

But while her popularity reached rock-bottom during the scandal which led to her impeachment and 24-year jail sentence, Park has slowly regained some of her prominence over the years as her supporters have grown more vocal.

In December 2021, hundreds of her supporters held a rally in celebration of Park's pardon. President Yoon Suk Yeol met her in December last year for a luncheon and called her on her birthday last week, while ruling People Power Party leader Han Dong-hun sent flowers to congratulate Park on her birthday.

Park recently announced her public support of lawyer Yu Young-ha, her confidant who has announced he will be running in the upcoming legislative elections, also in Daegu.