The woman at the center of a scandal engulfing the government of South Korean President Park Geun-hye returned to Seoul Sunday after tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets at the weekend demanding Park resign.
Choi Soon-sil, a long-time confidante of the president but holding no official position, returned from Germany amid allegations she’d vetted the president’s speeches, government appointees and had access to other classified information.
Media reports said Choi also managed two nonprofit groups that were rubber stamped by the government and controlled tens of millions of dollars.
A week of such revelations culminated Saturday night with thousands of protesters in downtown Seoul, who were met by police blockades near the presidential office as they yelled “Park Geun-hye, resign!” into the early hours of Sunday.
Activists from the People’s Democracy Party said at least four of their members were arrested.
“They were just protesting, shouting and claiming what we need in Korea, which looks like a democratic society, but it’s not,” said a member, who would only give her surname Kim. She said her party was fighting for a voice within the government for the “99%” and to recover the taxpayers’ funds lost to corruption.
President Park, 61, made a public apology on Oct. 25, admitting Choi had seen some of her speeches early on in her presidency. As public outrage grew along with calls for her impeachment, Park requested the resignations of all her top secretaries on Friday and started a reshuffle of her Cabinet on the weekend.
That didn’t appease the protesters who faced off against police until well past 1am.
“It won’t change anything. Even though she hires new people, it’s not going to change unless we get a new president,” said protester Samuel Choi, who is unrelated to Choi Soon-sil.
Meanwhile, investigators have begun questioning top aides and raided several public offices and homes of officials for connections to the non-profit groups.
It won’t change anything. Even though she hires new people, it’s not going
to change unless we
get a new president
President Park’s relationship with the family of Choi Soon-sil goes back several decades to when her father Park Chung-hee was president of South Korea. She was reportedly introduced to Choi’s father, the leader of a religious group, after her mother was shot dead in 1974 by a North Korean assassin.
Park’s father, who seized power in a military coup in 1961, was killed by his spy chief in 1979. Daughter Choi reportedly took over as Park’s confidante after her father died in 1994.
Approval ratings drop
As opposition parties demanded sweeping reforms and Park’s resignation, her public approval rating hit a record-low 17.5% as the scandal climaxed last week, signaling that even her key support regions in the south of the country were losing confidence.
“Our country is becoming more communist,” said protester Paul Oh. “Our past presidents were very bad and stupid and did weird things, but we haven’t experienced anything like this. Our democracy is fading away.”
Citizens and academics, however, expressed doubts that Park would face impeachment as it requires approval of the president-appointed Supreme Court.
The majority of the sitting judges were named by Park herself, so any impeachment debate would likely end in stalemate, said Choi Lyong, a political science professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
The president is also legally protected from prosecution during her term and cannot be charged with a criminal offense, except in the cases of sedition or conspiring with foreign forces for treason.
“There is a fundamental structure in the South Korean Constitution that empowers a president and enables a president to avoid the fear of being impeached,” the professor told Asia Times.
This was the case for President Roh Moo-hyun who faced impeachment in 2004 until the Supreme Court threw out the case.
Public opinion also changes over time, said Kim Jae-chun, a political scientist at Sogang University.
“It’s going to be a long and drawn out process. There’s going to be a lot of noise and people might become sympathetic toward the president, in which case there will be a lot of backlash to the opposition parties,” Kim said.
“There are still people (supporting Park), even though it’s a meager 17%, but the number will grow. People will say President Park did something terrible but doesn’t deserve impeachment.”
Professor Choi added that as there is just a year left until the next presidential election, the opposition may prefer to use the scandal to hamstring the government until then rather than pursue an unrealistic impeachment attempt.
In contrast to Saturday, downtown Seoul saw few protesters on Sunday evening.