Fire and loathing in former stronghold of South Korea's Park

December 1, 2016 4:13 AM EST

South Korean President Park Geun-hye visits the scene of a fire at a traditional market in Daegu, South Korea, December 1, 2016. Lee Jong-hyun/News1 via REUTERS


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By Jane Chung

DAEGU, South Korea (Reuters) - Hours after South Korean President Park Geun-hye offered to step down over a corruption scandal that has left her struggling for political survival, a fire destroyed a sprawling century-old market in her hometown, just blocks from where she was born.

On Thursday, Park made a brief and unexpected visit to the charred Seomun market in Daegu city, her first public appearance in over three weeks. The fire, seen by many as symbolic of the ruins of her political career, is still under investigation.

Shop-owners who gathered at the traditional market after Wednesday's fire said they were badly hit economically, but also felt betrayed by Park, once proudly claimed as "a daughter of Daegu".

The city of 2.5 million, 240 km (150 miles) southeast of Seoul, is also where her father, assassinated president Park Chung-hee, went to school and was a stronghold of power for South Korea's premier political family. The elder Park, seen as the builder of modern South Korea, took over after a coup in 1961 and ruled until he was shot and killed by his spy chief in 1979.

"Most of us are resentful of her. We wish she would decisively step down and we can have reform and this country would change," said Park Kyung-sook, 41, who ran a dumpling store for 20 years that was destroyed in the fire.

"This is Daegu. President Park Chung-hee did such a great job, so we thought his legacy would be carried on and she would do well. The people of Daegu really believed in her," said Park, who is not related to the family of two presidents.

Park Geun-hye represented a district on the outskirts of Daegu for 12 years in parliament before she was elected president in 2012.

"We had believed in her," said Ji Mi-jeong, 51, who has run a store at the market for 20 years. "Many people have turned against her. If we had 100 people who used to believe in her, 95 percent of them have turned against her."

Referring to the fire, Lee Dae-ho, a 60-year-old laborer in Daegu, said: "Maybe it's the curse of the Daegu people, timing wise, because she made that announcement (offering to step down)."

Separately on Thursday, police arrested a man for setting a fire in a memorial hall of Park Chung-hee's birthplace in the city of Gumi, officials said. The motive was being investigated, a police officer said.

RECORD LOW

Park's popularity plunged to 4 percent in a poll released last week, a record low for a South Korean president.

The bitter mood contrasts with 12 years ago, when Park, as interim conservative leader, rescued her battered party ahead of a parliamentary election and salvaged more seats than expected, even though it lost its majority.

At the time, before upgrades modernized Seomun market and live chickens and dogs were still sold alongside herbal medicines, voters in Daegu had been almost uniformly enthusiastic about the second-generation politician.

"Who has done more for Daegu than Park Chung-hee?" an elderly merchant had said in 2004. "The daughter is bound to be more or less the same."

By 2008, Park had reversed her party's fortunes and it returned to power. She herself was elected president in 2012 with a decisive 52 percent of the vote in a six-way race, including 80 percent in Daegu.

Park's popularity was damaged in the aftermath of a ferry disaster in April, 2014 that claimed the lives of more than 300 people, most of them school children.

Now, the scandal surrounding a lifelong friend accused of using her ties to the president to meddle in state affairs appears poised to bring Park's presidency to a premature end after she offered this week to step down.

Still, some at the market spoke of continued loyalty to the Parks and said few families had made greater contributions to the country.

When Park visited the market on Thursday, a handful of people cheered and chanted in her favor.

If Park is impeached or resigns, a scenario which looks increasingly likely, she will be the first democratically elected South Korea president not to serve her full term.

Heo Min, 40, whose aunt's traditional hanbok clothing store was destroyed, said the fire's damage was symbolic.

"It feels like the heart of Daegu has stopped, and the heartbreak for the people of Daegu is quite serious," he said.

(Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan)



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