DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's spend a few minutes now in a country where two influential people, the former president and also the CEO of the nation's largest corporation, are in jail awaiting trial as part of a corruption scandal. That is what is facing South Korea right now. The heir to Samsung is in jail. So is the former president, Park Geun-hye. She was impeached late last year, removed from office in March, and her corruption trial is beginning today.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in Korean).
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Speaking Korean).
GREENE: The sound of protesters outside the courtroom in Seoul. NPR's Lauren Frayer was there. Hey, Lauren.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.
GREENE: Morning. So I gather those were people who were trying to send a message of support to their former president as this corruption trial began.
FRAYER: Actually, those were people who are opposed to President Park. There is a camp of of protesters for and against. And this sort of battle of protests has been waged for the past few months. Park Geun-hye did not show up in court today, but those protesters did. They're worried - she wasn't required to show up in court. Her lawyers did. And they denied all the charges on her behalf, including bribery, abuse of power. She could get life in prison if convicted on those charges.
And the protesters there are worried that she won't get a fair trial because she's too cozy, they say, with judges and the legal establishment. And the reason why is Park's history. Her father was a military dictator during the Cold War. She grew up in the South Korean version of the White House. So she's part of this big dynasty. She's nicknamed the princess. Both of her parents were assassinated in power.
And so she had promised to be devoted to this country like no one else could. Her family gave their lives to it. She was elected in a real landslide in 2012. And here's a democracy activist, Kim He-sung (ph), outside the court today talking about ex-President Park.
KIM HE-SUNG: She became the president with a lot of support. And she said I don't have any family, so there will be no corruption either. But now people become very, very angry with that.
FRAYER: She says a lot of South Koreans feel really betrayed by their ex-president. And this corruption scandal, as you mentioned, is not just about Park. She's accused of extorting tens of millions of dollars from big conglomerates, and the head of the country's biggest company, Samsung, has also been indicted.
GREENE: What a moment. I mean, there was so much hope for her. But it does sound like she represents kind of the old guard of politics in South Korea. You have now - she's impeached, an acting president, and an election to replace Park - what? - about a week from today, right?
FRAYER: A week from today. That's right. And so as South Koreans are watching this sort of dramatic fall from grace of their president, they're re-evaluating her policies. And first and - first and foremost, she was a staunch pro-U.S. conservative with really that - at the center of her policy this historic steadfast U.S. relationship. And for the first time, some South Koreans are questioning that.
There have been protests in the southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula where the U.S. has set up a missile defense system designed to shoot down North Korean missiles. A lot of South Koreans say, not in my backyard. We don't want that U.S. military installation there. A lot of South Koreans are wondering whether the hard line that President Park took against North Korea is the right path. In fact, the frontrunner leading in the polls, a former human rights lawyer named Moon Jae-in, wants dialogue with the North.
And he's getting a lot of support from a younger generation, people who've grown up in this modern, affluent, high-tech country. They're concerned about election issues, the economy, youth unemployment. They don't feel threatened by the North. And in fact, they think - you know, some of them think that the U.S. hard line against the North could potentially be destabilizing.
GREENE: Now, this is very interesting. You say that the person who's likely to be the next president of South Korea is talking about dialogue with the North. President Trump has talked about dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Is that likely to happen?
FRAYER: It's really generational here. I mean, some older folks are dead set against dialogue. They think that that's giving into communists. Younger people are open to it. Now, the question is whether - you know, who's elected in this election and what path he or she sets forward. The frontrunner, as I said, is open to dialogue, so we'll see what happens.
GREENE: OK. Quite a moment in South Korea with the threats from the North and all of this political instability. NPR's Lauren Frayer covering it all from Seoul. Lauren, thanks a lot.
FRAYER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.