Choi Soon-sil, who is involved in a political scandal, reacts as she is surrounded by the media upon her arrival at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Seo Myeong-gon/Yonhap via Reuters
Choi Soon-sil, who is involved in a political scandal, reacts as she is surrounded by the media upon her arrival at a prosecutor's office in Seoul, South Korea. Photo: Seo Myeong-gon/Yonhap via Reuters

Park Geun-hye, who was elected as the South Korea’s first female president in December 2012 and proudly became the first female head of state in Northeast Asia, where Confucian legacies are still strong, is now engulfed in a political scandal over influence-peddling.

At the center of this scandal is Choi Soon-sil, who has a decades-long relationship with President Park. As massive protests continue, President Park’s approval ratings have dropped to a record-breaking low of 10.4% on November 1, which indicates that even some of her hard core supporters, mainly composed of senior citizens and people from the so-called TK (Taegu-Kyungsang) area, withdrew their persistent supports for her.

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Korean media speculates that Choi might have been enormously influential to important state affairs by manipulating President Park, while also utilizing their relationship for getting non-voluntary donations and favors from Korean entrepreneurs. Protesters demand that President Park resign immediately or should be impeached, neither of which is likely at the moment.

Park Gen-hye had been considered an “Iron Lady,” with many Western media outlets referring to her as an Asian “Margaret Thatcher” when she was inaugurated. This scandal only reveals how mentally vulnerable “Lady” Park has been, which may be understandable if you recall her personal history.

She was raised like Rapunzel in the Presidential Residence, isolated from the rest of the world while her father — Park Jung-hee, Korea’s Duce-like dictator — wielded absolute authority. She suffered through extremely painful tragedies twice. Yook Young-Soo, her beloved mother and Koreans’ favorite first lady, was killed by Moon Se-gwang, who was trying to kill Park Jung-hee in 1974. Park Jung-hee himself was assassinated by his own right–hand man, Kim Jae-gyu, five years later in 1979. When Park Geun-hye — who was regarded as the country’s first lady after her mother’s death — heard the news of her father’s tragic end, the first word she said was “Is the Military Demarcation Line safe?”

Many Koreans respected her focus on national security and 51.6% of Korean voters endorsed her as the national leader. Though many Koreans were sympathetic for her, not enough of recognized her wounded mind. A majority of Korean voters might have mis-perceived her as an “Iron Lady,” perhaps projecting their nostalgia for the years her charismatic father was in charge and South Korea was economically ascendant.

Unfortunately, political corruption scandal is an old cliché in South Korean politics — almost every president has been tainted by such scandals — and this vicious circle is related to structural problems of Korean politics. The South Korean president has too much power in state affairs and the decision-making process is also very centralized, which can temp cronies to corruption. The current situation might not be fundamentally different from the late 1960s when Park Jung-hee was in power and Gregory Henderson — a former Foreign Service Officer who served in South Korea — described Korean politics as “the Politics of the Vortex.”

Moreover, ever since the Sixth Republic emerged and the country democratized in 1987, Koreans have become increasingly tired of repeated pattern of political scandals as the intervals between them scandals grow shorter. South Korea’s president has a single five-year term, and his/her last few years often fall victim to intra-party and inter-party rivalries.

However, this time the scandal sent unprecedented shock waves through Korea because Choi has no official position and no expertise in any specific field. Even though Choi is an ordinary civilian who has no legal access to classified information nor official authority to advise the South Korean President, President Park already confessed that she had shown her speech draft to Choi beforehand, which proves that Park made no clear distinction between public and private. Now, she is suspected of leaking state affairs-related information and documents to Choi to get her advice, which is legally controversial and should be investigated thoroughly.

Two major concerns are paramount in this furious political vortex: the South Korean economy and the country’s national security.

The scandal comes at a time when the South Korean economy faces difficulties. South Korean industries such as shipbuilders and steelmakers have been gradually losing their competitiveness in the global market, and the country’s economic reform has become a real and urgent issue that requires strong leadership. Furthermore, the scandal seriously damaged Korean Inc.’s brand values and its credibility in the global market.

Secondly, Pyongyang might misjudgethe political situation in the South and is likely to conduct other major provocations in the coming months. In terms of timing, early 2017 can be critical because a newly-elected American president is likely to be busy with stabilizing the new administration. If South Korea is pulled into this whirlwind, the country could fall into real danger.

Here’s what should happen next: First, President Park and the Presidential Office should fully cooperate with a thorough inspection of this scandal. Otherwise, this incumbent administration will add more indelible stains to Korean political history. Second, the National Assembly and all political parties should work strenuously in a cooperative and communicative manner to mitigate any negative effect from the power vacuum.

Last but not least, Korean voters should be more conscious of the significance of their choices. President Park was elected by majority of Korean voters, and they should think more keenly about their responsibility as the final decision makers.

The Republic of Korea is a liberal democracy and liberal democracies are inherently stronger than any other political regime thanks to the checks and balance system. That will ultimately ensure the country’s resilience.

Dr. Eunjung Lim is a lecturer of Korea Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. She has been a researcher and visiting fellow at several institutes including the Center for Contemporary Korean Studies at Interfaculty Initiative in Information Studies at the University of Tokyo, the Institute of Japanese Studies at Seoul National University, the Institute of Japan Studies at Kookmin University, and Institute of Energy Economics, Japan. Before joining the SAIS, Lim taught at several universities in Korea, including Yonsei University and Korea University. She is fluent in Korean, Japanese and English.

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