Thousands greet pardoned South Korean ex-president Park

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Three months after being pardoned over one of South Korea’s worst government corruption scandals, former President Park Geun-hye walked home Thursday after being released from a hospital.

She slowly exited the Samsung Medical Center in Seoul as cameras flashed and dozens of supporters shouted, “Park Geun-hye! President!”

“For the first time in five years, I extend my greetings to our people. My health has really improved thanks to your concern,” Park said. She thanked the hospital’s medical staff and got into a black limo without asking any questions.

She then stopped at a cemetery and offered flowers and incense sticks at the grave of her father, assassinated military dictator Park Chung-hee, and bowed quietly in remembrance.

Hours later, a crowd of thousands waving national flags and balloons chanted her name amid a heavy police presence as Park arrived at her high-walled residence in her southern hometown of Daegu, where supporters lined a path near her home with hundreds of wreaths covered. Some held up banners with photos of Park and her father and signs proclaiming their innocence or wishing them luck.

Park got out of the car, smiled widely through her COVID-19 mask and hugged a child, who presented her with flowers. She then went to a microphone stand outside her gate to deliver a message thanking her supporters. Her speech was briefly interrupted when someone from the crowd threw what appeared to be a bottle, which shattered as it landed nearby, prompting bodyguards to surround her and pull up screens.

“The last five years have been a very difficult time for me,” Park said, before thanking her neighbors in Dalseong County in Daegu, where she was elected MP four times from 1998 to 2008.

Park said she hopes to make unspecified contributions, “albeit small ones,” to help the country, but made no mention of plans to return to politics.

“When I was President, I tried very hard to work for our nation and our people, but I failed to achieve many of my dreams. Those dreams are in the hands of others now,” Park said.

Park was ousted from office in 2017 and jailed for bribery and other crimes in what was a stunning fall from grace. She has described herself as a victim of political revenge and has refused to attend most of its trials.

The Conservatives, initially thrown into disarray by their overthrow, rebounded and narrowly won that month’s presidential election, but only after fielding a candidate who helped send them to jail.

President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol was part of a special investigation team that indicted Park in 2017 on bribery, abuse of power and racketeering charges, which established her as a central figure in an influence scandal that also involved a shadowy confidant and a billionaire Samsung heir.

Some of Park’s supporters at the hospital expressed their anger at Yoon when she was released, calling out he was a “traitor” and “insidious criminal,” but there were no major scuffles with the police.

Yoon, who takes office on May 10, told reporters he wished Parks a speedy recovery from her health problems and hoped to visit her in Daegu soon. When asked if he plans to invite Park to his inauguration ceremony, Yoon said, “You should obviously invite all past presidents.”

Park had served less than a quarter of her 22-year sentence before President Moon Jae-in pardoned her in December, citing her health concerns and the need to promote unity amid pandemic-related difficulties. Moon, who won the 2017 presidential by-election after Park’s ouster, sent Park a potted orchid with a bow that read, “Always be healthy,” his office said.

She had been treated at the Seoul hospital since November. Officials have declined to elaborate on Park’s health, but local media said she suffered from a slipped disc problem, a shoulder injury and dental problems, as well as mental stress.

Park was once the darling of conservatives in South Korea, who hailed their father as a hero whose industrial policies lifted the country out of post-war poverty despite its brutal crackdown on human rights. She was elected the first female president in 2012, beating Moon by a million votes.

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