SEOUL, South Korea — A small but growing army of often elderly men and women regularly swing South Korean banners and scream outrage at the jailing of a woman they consider their spiritual mother: disgraced former President Park Geun-hye.
They lash out against politicians, judges and a government they never wanted, against media they accuse of lying to keep leftists, traitors and opportunists in power. The nation’s only way forward, they say, is the release and redemption of Park, the daughter of a slain anti-communist dictator and conservative icon.
“What was it that she did so wrong? Why is there so much hate against her?” a tearful Jang Hyeong-ryeol, 48, said outside the courthouse where Park appeared Friday. “This country is not normal. It has lost all objectivity. It’s dying.”
Park was stripped of her presidential powers and jailed in March in South Korea’s biggest corruption scandal in decades. She could receive a lengthy prison term in a trial expected to reach a verdict in mid-October.
Pro-Park demonstrations remain tiny relative to earlier protests that demanded her removal from office and brought millions into the streets. Her supporters refuse to accept the possibility that Park may not be the selfless daughter of South Korea she has always portrayed herself to be.
The fury is the latest reminder of how deeply South Koreans are split along ideological and generational lines, the result of a long-simmering standoff with rival North Korea and the lingering fallout from the conservative military dictatorships that ran the country until the late 1980s.
Thousands of Park’s supporters marched in the capital, Seoul, on Saturday in their biggest gathering in months, waving South Korean and U.S. flags. They shouted for Park’s release and urged a “dying” South Korea to “wake up.”
The latest rally was a reaction to a court ruling Friday that sentenced Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, the country’s most powerful businessman, to five years in prison for crimes including offering bribes to Park. The protesters fear the ruling will work against Park in her own criminal trial.
“South Korea’s judicial system has committed suicide,” Jung Mi-hong, a former television anchorwoman and one of the rally’s organizers, shouted into a microphone as she stood atop a van. “We need to take a stand against the North Korea-sympathizing leftists who threw a person in jail when she didn’t even take a penny in bribes, and show them once and for all who’s in control.”
Despite a heavy police presence, some protesters fought with pedestrians, but there were no reports of injuries. About 8,000 people protested, according to a police officer at the scene who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters.
Three people died amid violent clashes between Park’s supporters and police on March 10 after Seoul’s Constitutional Court formally removed her from office.
The angst is more than just political.
South Korea has a decaying employment market, a widening gap between rich and poor and arguably the worst elderly poverty rate among developed economies. Some experts see the pro-Park demonstrations as driven by struggling older people who feel marginalized and cling to memories of the 1970s and ’80s, when jobs were easier to get under the aggressive industrialization polices of authoritarian leaders including Park’s father.
The younger Park, 65, enjoyed a meteoric career as a politician before being elected the country’s first female president in 2012. She convincingly beat her liberal rival, current President Moon Jae-in. Her base was conservative older voters who consider her father, Park Chung-hee, a hero who lifted the nation from the devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War and rescued millions from poverty in the ’60s and ’70s, despite a brutal record of civilian oppression.
Park Geun-hye’s image of selflessness for her country collapsed for many amid allegations that she colluded with a longtime confidante to take tens of millions of dollars from companies in bribes and through extortion, and allowed the friend to manipulate state affairs from the shadows.
But to her remaining supporters, Park remains the wronged “mother of the nation.”
Kim Jeong-hi, 71, said Park couldn’t have taken bribes because she was “raised and educated by Park Chung-hee.”
Park’s supporters feel North Korea adds urgency to their cause.
Many of them call Moon, who took office in May after winning a presidential by-election to replace Park, a “North Korea-sympathizing leftist” who’s persecuting Park because of a political vendetta. Their rallies often rail against North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons program, the policies of liberal governments in Seoul that sought rapprochement with Pyongyang in the 2000s, and Moon’s desire to reach out to the North despite a flurry of missile tests.
“We need to drive out the leftist dictatorship or this country will be ruined,” Chung Kyung-ae, 62, said during the march Saturday. She was repeatedly interrupted by a man who yelled, “Kill the reds.”
There’s also frustration over the economy.
“What did the leftists ever do for this country?” 58-year-old Son Tae-ho said. “They did nothing. They just brought a spoon to the table. Now they have the power and are trying to find and persecute every single right-wing person like me.”
Son said he doesn’t have a regular job and earns a modest living off the stock market. He used to run a record store and video rental shop before the “internet killed them” in the early 2000s.
Son looks most fondly on the era of Chun Doo-hwan, the military dictator who took power in a coup shortly after Park Chung-hee’s assassination in 1979. Chun’s government bowed to massive protests and accepted free presidential elections in 1987.
“For me, the Chun Doo-hwan period was the best. Back then, anyone could get good jobs if they just put in a little work,” Son said.
Dozens, sometimes hundreds, of Park’s supporters have been appearing in front of the Seoul Central District Court on the days of her court appearances. Many supporters who managed to win seats in the courtroom were kicked out for chanting, for giving Park military salutes or for insulting courtroom guards and reporters.
The intensity of the protests is expected to pick up in coming weeks as Park’s verdict nears.
As Park’s bus left the court for her latest appearance Friday, hundreds of supporters fanatically waved South Korean and U.S. flags and chanted “President Park Geun-hye” and “We love you Park Geun-hye.”
Some of them wailed.