The presidency of South Korea’s Park Geun-hye is finished as a meaningful political force. At the very least, the dictator’s daughter — as her critics like to call her — is now the lame duck she was destined to become within months anyway as she neared her final year in office. In the as yet unlikely worst case scenario, Park could be impeached or face such pressure to resign that it becomes impossible to withstand.
With the South Korean public wondering if a shamanistic cult-linked confidant, Choi Soon-sil, has been pulling the strings of the presidency, Park’s approval rating last week hit an abysmal new low of 14%.
Choi, the daughter of a controversial pastor who mentored Park after her parents were assassinated in the 1970s, was given the president’s speeches in advance to edit and even entrusted to choose her wardrobe. Choi, who arrived in Seoul on Sunday to face the heat after a prolonged absence in Germany, is also accused of using her ties to the president to shake down businesses for donations to a foundation that doubled as a personal slush fund.
Bizarre happenings indeed. But what’s most remarkable, perhaps, is how unremarkable the scandal starts to look when considering South Korea’s democratic history, rumors of shamanistic control of the executive notwithstanding. Born only in 1987, after decades of military dictatorship, South Korea’s young democracy has practically made an art form out of electing leaders destined to end political life in disgrace. There’s simply no such thing as a popular president in South Korea. Being elected to the presidential Blue House is a bit like being transported back in time and made captain of the Hindenburg, commanding the skies in the certainty you ultimately end up as part of a smoldering mess on the ground.
As reviled as Park seems relative to expectations in other democracies (even Richard Nixon never dipped below 24 percent approval), she’s hardly out of kilter with her predecessors. All of South Korea’s democratically-elected presidents at one point sunk below 20 percent, and two plumbed ever lower depths than Park. Kim Young-sam, a former democracy campaigner who became the country’s second president in the democratic era, had the confidence of just 6% of the public after the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis hit on his watch.
There are a number of plausible reasons for the special contempt with which South Koreans regard their leaders. Despite being among Asia’s most successful and stable democracies, South Korea has a major corruption problem, a malaise as manifest in the country’s politics as it is across general society.
Personal relationships are crucial to success in what can seem to outsiders a surprisingly provincial place for a nation of 50 million people. Connections in politics and business, often formed through bloodlines or by virtue of coming from the same university or hometown, carry with them lifelong expectations of give and take. Wining and dining for influence is so ingrained that a recently-enacted anti-corruption law, which bans public servants from accepting meals worth more than 30,000 won (roughly US$26), has sparked a panic among restaurateurs reliant on such wheeling and dealing to make ends meet. It’s hardly surprising, then, that every single president has been embroiled in a major corruption scandal, very often involving family. Even Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kim Dae-jung, whom foreign media liked to call Asia’s Nelson Mandela, saw two of his sons end up behind bars for graft (And that Nobel Prize? Achieved through a secret US$500 million payment to North Korea that could reasonably be described as a bribe).
Then there is the enormous power of the presidency as it was conceived. The occupant of the White House may be called the world’s most powerful man, but, domestically at least, he faces greater constraints than his Korean counterpart. The US president needs Senate approval for his Cabinet picks, for instance. The South Korean president, on the other hand, has full discretion to appointment ministers, except for the Prime Minister, who requires parliamentary approval. Park is just the latest in an unbroken line of South Korean leaders seen to have abused their power.
Clearly, South Koreans have had enough. On Saturday, thousands marched in Seoul to demand that Park step down. They have every right to be indignant and, indeed, anxious over what other strange revelations may be heaped upon the already bizarre disclosures made so far. But as they protest, they might also ask themselves why it is that their president’s downfall was practically assured from day one. Why history is repeating itself yet again. Why South Korea is trapped in a malignant cycle, dwarfing the failures of any one president.