SEOUL – In President Park Geun-hye’s hometown of Daegu, a city at the heart of South Korea’s economic boom in the 1970s, even the sight of her face is enough to make residents cringe.
Shopkeeper Kim Yeon-hee said many customers want her to remove photos of Park taken after the president bought a pair of black shoes for about $35 on a visit to the southeastern city last year. Those were happier times, before Park became embroiled in an influence-peddling scandal that has sparked mass protests calling for her resignation.
“I’ll keep them for the sake of memory, but I don’t feel admiration for Park any more when I see her,” Kim, 59, said on a chilly afternoon in early November. “I only pity her.”
The disenchantment with Park in her own backyard signals a wider shift in the nation’s political landscape, where regional loyalties often hold greater sway among the electorate than policy platforms. With an election looming next year, her ruling party is at risk of losing more elderly voters in its southeastern base who fondly recall how her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, helped transform the nation into Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
The country’s youth has already abandoned her, with a recent poll showing that Park had zero support from Koreans in their 20s, many of whom are struggling to find jobs. They are leaning toward opposition parties who want to curb the economic influence of big conglomerates known as chaebol, including Samsung Electronics Co., Hyundai Motor Co. and Lotte Group.
Daegu, part of South Korea’s most populous region, is filled with factory parks churning out everything from automobile parts to electronics to socks. It sits next to a highway connecting the country’s two biggest cities, Seoul in the north and the port city of Busan in the southeast.
That economic importance translates into political power: Six of South Korea’s 11 presidents have come from the region. In the last presidential election in 2012, some 80 percent of Daegu voters backed Park, whose ruling Saenuri party advocates tough measures against North Korea and a pro-business approach to boost economic growth.
Now her approval rating is in the single digits after she apologized last month for allowing her friend Choi Soon-sil to access presidential documents. Choi has been arrested on suspicion of attempted fraud over allegations that she used her relationship with Park to pressure some of the country’s biggest corporations into donating tens of millions of dollars to her foundations.
Park may become the first South Korean president to be investigated while in office if prosecutors question her this week as planned. State prosecutors on Wednesday asked her to submit herself to questioning by Friday. Prosecutors had sought such a session on Tuesday or Wednesday, but her defense lawyer on Tuesday asked for more time.
Her own party has also agreed with the opposition to appoint a special prosecutor to determine whether she conducted any wrongdoing.
“Lower approval rates in Daegu are symbolically troubling for Park given that this was her home constituency in the National Assembly,” said Timothy Rich, assistant professor at Western Kentucky University who studies East Asia politics. “One of Park’s strengths in the past was an image of being above the fray in terms of corruption, and this scandal ends that image. If the Park scandal becomes a prolonged conflict in Korea, this could be damaging for the party’s electoral hopes next year.”
Park’s travails are now hurting the prospects of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who similarly appeals to an older generation of Koreans. While Ban still has six weeks to go at the U.N. and hasn’t formally declared his intention to seek the presidency, political commentators have speculated that the native of the central region would seek to join Park’s Saenuri party and leverage its support base in next year’s election.
Overtaking Ban in recent polls is Moon Jae-in, the runner-up to Park in 2012 and a former leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, the nation’s largest opposition party. While the DPK, as it’s known, has its political roots in the southwest, Moon himself was born in the southeast and has a better chance of siphoning off votes in the region.
His party showed signs of breaking through in April, when it won a parliamentary seat in Daegu for the first time in more than three decades. Weak economic growth and troubles at companies such as Hyundai Heavy Industries Co. and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. hurt Park.
“Discontent with Park in the southeast didn’t happen overnight,” said Yoon Jong-bin, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul. “It’s been accumulating and this scandal made it explode.”
The shipbuilding industry, located mostly in the southeast, eliminated about 20,000 jobs in the first half of this year as losses from excess capacity and sluggish global trade increased. That’s having a ripple effect through Daegu, once known as Park’s “kitchen garden of ballots” for propelling her to four election victories since 1998.
“She should step down,” said Henry Son, vice president at Woosung Metal Co. on the outskirts of Daegu, which supplies to companies like defense contractor Hanwha Techwin Co. “Something must be done about the economy. I wouldn’t even mind a war to get the factories going again.”
So far, Park has shown no signs of stepping down. On Nov. 4, she choked back tears and said she “let her guard down” with Choi, appealing to the sympathies of voters who had seen both of her parents killed by assassins.
Yeo Joon-yeon, a 49-year-old man who makes a living by fixing motor parts in a suburb of Daegu, smiled as he recalled seeing Park attend an annual community sports event at a field across the street from his shop.
“I feel sorry for her because I know how tragically her parents died,” he said, stooping over a grease-covered motor with a screw driver. “But I’m also ashamed of her. She’s made a national embarrassment of herself and that angers everyone who cared for her.”
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