Large crowds of protestors took to the streets of Seoul to demand the resignation of President Park Geun-hye. As a powerful symbol of resistance, many protestors can be seen wearing masks with Park’s face on them, as if she was a puppet. The vast majority of South Koreans have lost faith in the current administration. Surveys indicate that about 50 per cent of respondents believe Park should either resign or face impeachment from the South Korean parliament. Park’s approval rating has plummeted to an unprecedented low of 5 per cent as public anger intensified. The root cause of this dissent is from South Korea’s biggest political scandal in modern history.
President Park Geun-hye recently found herself in momentous political controversy that has undermined the trust and legitimacy of her administration. Park is South Korea’s first female president, and the daughter of former authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, who reformed the small nation into a competitive industrial exporter. She has frequently been disparaged for behaving in an aloof manner and appearing overly dependent on a few confidants. She reportedly ignored much of her cabinet. Park’s bizarre behaviour was explained when Korean media revealed the scandal.
The core of the controversy pertains to a close friend of Park, Choi Soon-sil, who has no official political position. Behind the scenes, Park has allegedly been consulting Choi over almost every political decision. It appears that Choi has been micro-managing Park on issues ranging from the political speeches to the clothes she will wear on any given day.
While Park has yet to resign herself, she has instructed many members of her cabinet to do so. Her spokesman stated that a major ‘reshuffle’ would occur. These concessions may not be enough to redeem Park’s image and placate public outrage. Shin Yool, a professor at Myongji University, claims the findings of this scandal culminate into South Korea’s ‘biggest crisis’ since the country was founded 70 years ago, saying, ‘The president has lost her ability to function as a leader’.
President Park’s confidante is the daughter of a deceased religious leader, Choi Tae-min. Apparently Choi Tae-min gained Park’s trust at a young age when he convinced her he was capable of communicating to her assassinated mother. Choi Soon-sil has been close friends with President Park ever since. Evidence of their relationship consists of a computer owned by Choi that stockpiled a number of Park’s speeches, some of which the president was meant to deliver later during her term. Choi was shown to have edited the historic speech Park gave in 2014 on her long-term plan to reunify the Korean Peninsula.
The degree to which Choi interfered in state affairs is severe. Choi also allegedly formed a covert group known as the ‘eight fairies’ in order to advise Park behind closed doors. Investigations also uncovered evidence that Choi may have funnelled money from two of her non-profit foundations. The organisations have received $70 million from Korea’s largest business lobby, the Federation of Korean Industries. Al-Jazeera notes, ‘Ironically, this all comes less than a month after Park’s administration instituted a wide-ranging new law aimed at cracking down on corruption and influence peddling’.
The political crisis has already pressured Park to reshuffle her cabinet and fire eight different presidential aides. In attempt to save face amongst the public and generate bipartisan support, President Park has replaced her Prime Minister by nominating the liberal Kim Byong-Joon. The nomination is not finalised until parliamentary approval. President Park’s main opposition group, the Democratic Party, are characterising Park’s reshuffle as an effort to distance herself from the scandal. It claims Park must take accountability and explain the entirety of her relationship with Choi.
Following these allegations, Choi has been in custody since 31 October. On 3 November, the Seoul Central District Court accepted a request from prosecutors to place an arrest warrant on Choi on the basis of abuse of authority and attempted fraud. Furthermore, two former presidential aides have recently been arrested. Ahn Jong-beom, who used to be Park’s senior secretary for policy coordination, was accused of influencing companies into donating large sums of money to Choi’s non-profit organisations. Jung Ho-sung, the other aide, was charged for providing Choi with classified government documents.
Park has publicly apologised for her improper relationship with Choi, and confessed to letting Choi edit ‘certain documents’ that contained political speeches. Park has avoided commenting on the more serious allegations, such as Choi’s involvement in vital government decisions and access to classified intelligence.
The fate of South Korea’s current administration remains unclear. The president has fifteen months remaining in her term. If Park were to resign, an election would have to take place within the next two months to determine the successive president. Many analysts predict Park will try to remain in power, since her status as president keeps her immune from prosecution. Despite public outrage, she is not obligated to leave office. Even if impeachment were to seriously be considered, completing a thorough investigation would take several months. Opposition parties have been critical of Park but have yet to make a serious call for her resignation or impeachment due to fear it may adversely affect their chance in next year’s presidential race.
The opposition parties are currently divided and have no clear runner-up to put forth in the event of Park’s resignation. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Moon Jae-in are leading in the polls despite the fact that neither has officially declared their candidacy. Ban Ki-moon has two months left until his term with the UN expires and is not formally affiliated with a political party. Media tends to link Ban Ki-moon with the conservative Saenuri party that Park represents, which could tarnish his image. Moon Jae-in is part of the Democratic Party and was the runner-up of the 2012 election.
Ultimately, the status of Park’s presidency and the prospects of her successor remain uncertain. As the political scandal unfolds, South Korea also faces a slowing economy with major companies such as Samsung experiencing severe setbacks. While protests in Seoul continue to occur, the conditions for unrest are more prominent than ever.