Vol. XLI No. 03 January 15, 2017

South Korea: President Park in a Soup

Yohannan Chemarapally

A SCANDAL of humongous proportions has hit the South Korean president Park Gyeun-hye and plunged domestic politics into turmoil. The calls for the resignation of the South Korean president are getting louder by the day. Public support for her is now in single digits. The South Korean capital, Seoul has been witnessing huge protests since the scandal erupted in full force at the end of October. One of the biggest protest rallies the country has seen was held on November 12. People from all over the country congregated in Seoul demanding that the president immediately tender her resignation. The protestors chanted in unison demanding that the president should “come out and surrender”. The South Korean president has less than a year and a half anyway to complete her term in office. But as more and more sordid revelations emerge, the signs are ominous for South Korea's first female president. Park was elected in 2012 on a right wing platform espousing national security, economic growth and a corruption free government. She had promised an end to the culture of corruption that had perennially plagued South Korean politics.

As an opposition lawmaker, she had cultivated an image of probity. The fact that she was the daughter of the former dictator, Park Chung-hee had also bolstered her image. Many Koreans, particularly those belonging to the older generation idolised the former military general, who had seized power in a military coup in 1961. He was in power till his assassination in 1979 at the hands of his intelligence chief, Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). The current president's mother had also fallen prey to an assassin’s bullet. She was killed in 1974. The Japanese born assassin’s bullets missed President Park, the intended target, but hit the first lady who succumbed to her injuries.

After her mother's assassination, Park Gyeun-hye came under the influence of a charismatic cult leader who at that time went under the name of Choe Tae-min. In his long career as a spiritual healer, occultist and head of a Christian evangelical cult, he had assumed several aliases.

The young Park, heartbroken by the untimely demise of her mother was convinced by Choe Tae-min that she would be able to communicate with the spirit of her dead mother. From that time on, the preacher and his family became extremely close to the current South Korean president. She never married and is estranged from her two siblings, a brother and a sister for a long time. Unlike her predecessors in office, she did not have greedy relatives exploiting their closeness to the presidency. “I have no child to inherit my properties. You, the people, are my only family, and to make you happy is the only reason I do politics”, she had said while taking over the presidency.

The last three South Korean presidents were all accused of corruption and investigated after they left office. One former South Korean president, Roh Myoo-hun, whom many South Koreans considered as the least corrupt head of State, committed suicide in 2009 as investigations into the corrupt activities of his close relatives were going on.

After the death of Choi Tae-min, his daughter Choi Soon-sil stepped into her life. A US state department cable released by Wikileaks in 2007, quoting sources in Seoul described the senior Choi as a “Rasputin” like figure who had “complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated fabulous wealth as a result”. Park Gyeun-hye officiated as South Korea's first lady after the death of her mother. Choi Tae-min also had enormous influence on her authoritarian father. Now it has emerged that Choi Soon-sil's influence over Park was also all pervasive. It has now emerged that the South Korean president depended considerably on the advice of Choi Soon-sil while taking important decisions.

It has now become clear that Choi played a key role in President Park's decision to close down the jointly run South and North Korean industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea. According to reports in the South Korean media, Choi was present at the closed door meeting when the decision was taken to close down the industrial park.  After taking over, President Park had pledged to improve relations with North Korea and tackle economic inequality. All her campaign promises were soon forgotten. Relations with the North went further downhill. President Park's hawkish views on the North, probably inherited from her father who was a known CIA asset, have been mainly responsible for the tense security situation in the Korean peninsula. The current leaders of both North and South Korea are dynastic leaders. Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul were even more tense when Park Chung-hye was the president of South Korea. There has been a record of hostilities between the two families.

President Park's decision earlier in the year to install the sophisticated American anti-missile THAAD batteries on South Korean territory has angered China. Beijing claims that the THAAD systems based in South Korea seriously impairs the security balance that prevails in the region. Many Koreans were also unhappy with the deal she struck with Japan on the emotive issue of Korean “comfort women” forcibly enslaved to be sex workers in military brothels during Second World War.

After she assumed the presidency, key speeches Park made were first vetted by Choi Soon-sil, despite being a private citizen not having high level security clearance. President Park initially denied that that there was any wrongdoing calling the allegations “baseless”. It was the discovery of a discarded computer used by Choi that provided concrete evidence that more than 40 speeches made by Park when she was running for president and later after she assumed the high office, were first vetted and approved by Choi. The president even depended on her advice about the colour of clothes to wear on particular days and had advance notice of itineraries during the foreign trips undertaken by the president.  She used her influence with the president to place her cronies in important positions of power so that they could influence government policies. According to the Korean newspaper, Hankoryeh, Choi used her clout to register two foundations by passing strict government checks and controls. Top Korean conglomerates like Samsung contributed large amounts of money to these foundations. More than $70 million found its way to Germany where Choi had established shell companies and dabbled in real estate.

In another case, Choi misused her closeness to the president to get her daughter admitted to an elite South Korean university. A conservative newspaper said that South Korea in the last four years was actually under a Choi Soon-sil administration. The KCIA chief had said that his major reason for shooting Park Chung-hye was because of the close relationship between the former president and Choi's father. He had told a Korean court that he carried out the assassination to stop Choi Tae-min from exploiting his friendship to indulge in corruption and more importantly to keep his daughter, the current president, away from the clutches of the Rasputin like figure.

Now President Park has been left friendless. Her mentor cum adviser, Choi, was forced to return from Germany and surrender to the authorities. President Park has tearfully admitted to some of her lapses, saying that she shared only “certain documents” with Choi. She has apologised to the South Korean people and has pledged to submit to an inquiry by prosecutors looking into her ties with her spiritual adviser and close friend. President Park did not acknowledge to any wrongdoing on her part and said that it was only “a case of misjudgment”. She had earlier announced that she was severing her ties with Choi and had dismissed eight of her political aides who had close ties with her disgraced friend. She also replaced the prime minister along with two other ministers but the South Korean parliament refused to accept her new choice for the post of prime minister.

The opposition has the majority in parliament. Even her close conservative supporters in the national assembly have deserted her. To divert attention from the scandal, President Park suggested in late September that the term limits for presidents should not be confined to only one five year term. She suggested that the constitution should be amended to remove the one term limit. She said that a “one term” presidency hampers continuity in policy, especially as regards the policy towards North Korea. Liberal presidents who had preceded her had favoured reconciliation with the North. The “sunshine policy” towards the North which was started by President Kim Dae-jung, won plaudits internationally and had brought much needed calm to the Korean peninsula.

Running out of political options, the South Korean president had given up the prerogative to choose the nominee to replace the sacked prime minister in the second week of November and has instead permitted parliament to pick a new prime minister. The opposition scenting blood is now demanding that the president give up her decision making powers to a prime minister picked by the national assembly. Even within her own ruling Saenuri party, fifty members of parliament have raised the banner of revolt. “Park has lost her authority as president and showed that she does not have the basic qualities to run a country”, said Jae myung-Lee, a leader of the opposition Minjoo Party.

After being impeached in parliament, her chances of completing her tenure now hang on the decision of a constitutional court, where the case against her is being currently heard. The recent developments have prematurely transformed her into a lame duck president. Recent opinion polls have shown that she has already become the least loved South Korean president since South Korea transitioned from military rule in the late 1980's. She will try to brazen it out till the end of her term. As president, she remains constitutionally immune from prosecution, except on charges of sedition and conspiring with foreign countries.  But the protests on the streets are gaining more momentum as more and sordid revelations emerge. In the face of massive popular discontent, President Park will find it difficult to complete her full term in office.