President Park Geun-hye of South Korea is in the biggest fight of her political life. She is in the midst of a political scandal involving allegations of corruption and that her close personal friend and “shaman,” Choi Soon-sil, was a shadowy, Rasputin-like figure who generally functioned as the president’s puppetmaster. Park is believed to have shared classified government documents with Choi, who has no security clearance. Choi also, allegedly, used her connections and influence to shape state policy, pocket millions in corporate donations, and rig her daughter’s admission to Seoul’s prestigious Ewha Women’s University.
The Choi scandal has, at a time of economic trouble and increasing tensions with North Korea, thrown the Park administration’s handling of state affairs into question, and outraged many ordinary citizens. Over the past two weeks, massive numbers of South Koreans have hit the streets, calling for Park’s resignation and impeachment.
DOING WELL BY DOING BAD
With all the rumors, it is difficult to parse fact from fiction. What we do know is that in the summer of 2016, South Korean media reported on the suspected involvement of Choi, Park, and some of her senior aides in an unusual fundraising process. Choi, according to the reports, had pressured the country’s top corporations into donating the equivalent of $68.1 million to launch two foundations, Mi-R and K-Sports, to promote South Korean culture and sports. The donations were collected just days before the foundations’ launch without undergoing proper government vetting, and Choi allegedly pocketed part of the funds.
A frenzy of investigations by the media and the Ministry of Justice ensued, revealing that Choi had manipulated the admissions process to get her daughter into Ewha. Although academically unqualified, her daughter was one of the top equestrians in Asia, and the university allegedly changed its admission requirements to emphasize skill at dressage; in return, Choi helped funnel illicit government funds to the school. Manipulating university admissions is a serious transgression in South Korea, where students may devote their entire lives to studying for the annual college entrance exams, which act as a means to achieve family honor and social mobility.
A further twist came on October 24 when JTBC Newsroom, the cable channel of the major newspaper JoongAng, reported that it had obtained Choi’s discarded computer tablet. The device contained, among other classified documents, drafts of Park’s 2014 speech in Dresden, Germany, which outlined her government’s policy on inter-Korean relations. Park had apparently asked Choi for comments on the speech and to help with public relations. Choi has publicly denied ownership of the tablet, but prosecutors, who received the device from JTBC, have supported the broadcaster’s claims. Choi was arrested on November 2 on charges of embezzlement, attempted fraud, and abuse of authority. (Critics argued that she should have been charged with bribery, a more serious crime in South Korea that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.) Relatives seem to have been warning Park about the Chois for years.
Since then, the media has covered Park and Choi’s relationship at length, in an attempt to understand why this woman had been entrusted with state decisions. Choi is the daughter of Choi Tae-min, an elusive figure who had been a Buddhist monk, a Roman Catholic, and then a self-ordained Christian minister who founded a fusionist cult in the 1970s. He allegedly became Park’s spiritual mentor when she was in her early twenties—Choi claimed he could communicate with the spirit of her mother, First Lady Yook Young-soo, who was assassinated in 1974. They drew even closer after Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated five years later. Choi was able to exploit Park, who had grown up lonely and isolated in the South Korean presidential compound and had lost both parents; he is believed to have used their relationship to amass a private fortune. Relatives seem to have been warning Park about the Chois for years—her father allegedly demanded before his death that she cut her ties to the elder Choi, and years later, in 1990, her siblings pleaded with political heavyweights to help separate the two—but nothing seems to have worked. After the elder Choi died in 1994, his daughter Soon-sil took over his role as Park’s emotional confidante and supporter.
Since the story went public, Park has made two televised, public apologies. On October 25, she apologized for distressing the nation and admitted to seeking Choi’s advice, but only as a personal friend, during her election campaign and the early stages of her presidency. The public found her response unsatisfactory, since she made no mention of the allegations of misusing public office and violating state secrecy laws, and became convinced that she was evading responsibility. She renewed her apology on November 4, saying that she will accept prosecutorial and independent counsel investigations “if necessary” and offered an unusually personal, emotional address. She took responsibility for the crisis and even admitted to her personal isolation and loneliness, which, she claimed, made her lower her guard in her relationship with her longtime friend. But she also emphasized her anti-corruption credentials, saying that she had tried to remain vigilant about running a clean government.
Corruption in South Korea is nothing new. The country’s last four presidents—Lee Myung-bak, Roh Mu-hyun, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Young-sam—all struggled with corruption scandals implicating their family members. The last two of the authoritarian leaders, Roh Tae-woo and Chun Du-hwan, were, after the end of the dictatorship, convicted of corruption as well as larger crimes such as treason and mutiny. More recently, Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo resigned over bribery allegations in 2015, just two months after taking office. And in June 2016, opposition leaders Ahn Cheol-soo and Chun Jung-bae resigned as co-chairs of the People’s Party, taking responsibility for corruption among several of their party members.
South Koreans have expressed disgust and anger every time their leaders came under public scrutiny for cronyism, influence-peddling, and family connivance. Many have even come to expect corruption from political and business elites. But the scandal involving President Park is different. In the past, South Koreans regarded corruption scandals as rational, if nonetheless regrettable: they involved self-interest and illicit advantage, involving a leader’s family members.
Yet this time, it is the president herself—not her family—who is the subject of scandal. In fact, the public’s emotional outburst stems in part from a sense of betrayal. Park had run on an anti-corruption platform, pointing out that, because she had neither married nor had children, there was no one close to her who could take advantage of her power. Further, this particular scandal has gone above any one leader, calling into question the soundness of the country’s hard-built democratic system: South Koreans fear that their elected leader might actually be the instrument of a religious cult. Yet there is no definitive evidence that Choi is a shaman, and even if she were, that would not be a crime—former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was famously interested in astrology. The real questions are about Park’s judgment, her tendency to isolate herself, and her refusal to listen to experienced, legitimate advisors on matters of state.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
In an attempt to ward off further criticism, Park has reshuffled some of her top aides, nominating a new prime minister and two new cabinet members. But on November 7, she was forced to withdraw her nominee for prime minister under pressure from the opposition, which criticized her moves as unilateral. A day later, she consented to allowing the National Assembly to select a new prime minister, and vowed to yield control of the cabinet to him or her. Although her own Saenuri Party claims that Park should still be in charge of foreign policy and national security, even they are divided on what her fate should be.
Many South Koreans continue to demand her resignation or impeachment. But neither of these options is likely, nor desirable. First, Article 65 of the ROK constitution requires that a minimum of one-third of the National Assembly support a proposal for impeachment, followed by a majority vote for passage, and then a two-thirds vote of approval. These are high bars, and lawmakers will remember when efforts to impeach former President Roh Moo-hyun backfired, and the Constitutional Court overturned the assembly’s impeachment bill. Roh nevertheless committed suicide, announcing in a public address, shortly before taking his life, “I feel ashamed before my fellow citizens.”
The constitution requires that a new president be elected within 60 days after the office is vacated. But neither the ruling party nor the opposition has a viable candidate to fill the presidency on such short notice. Also, a new president would begin a new five year term, eliminating the scheduled December 2017 election, and putting the new government in a precarious position—in the midst of public outrage and without a clear mandate given a rushed election. A new president would also be exposed to the ongoing legal drama surrounding Park, Choi, and the country’s highest office.
Park’s plan appears to be to do what she can to normalize state affairs by working with the legislature and, if necessary, by taking a back seat to a new prime minister. But what is really important is that the legal process go on independently of political partisanship. Fact must be separated from fiction in the two cases opened by the prosecutors: one on improper access to government documents and policy plans; and the other on the alleged corruption involving Choi and the establishment of Mi-R and K-Sport.
In the medium to long term, however, South Korea should use this crisis as an opportunity to modernize its fundraising infrastructure. The impressive growth of educational institutions, research institutes, churches, and other civil society organizations in recent decades has largely relied on private cash donations and government contributions. But the country should now be moving toward establishing transparent trusts and endowments, with clear rules and binding contracts governing the collection and use of funds.
Second, South Korea should continue to strengthen democratic norms and governance. South Koreans have worked hard for democracy—their country boasts a vibrant civil society, which has seen vast improvements in the rule of law. But there is still a tendency to conflate public and private, and to let hierarchies of wealth, power, seniority, and status trump individual rights.
Most of all, South Koreans face a critical juncture in their nation’s history, one in which they can either argue and politicize or begin to clear the way toward domestic stability. Times like these—of confusion and chaos—will require conservative and progressive forces to join hands across the aisle, and to find the solution that best serves their country.