Anti-government protest in Seoul have brought out  a cross-section of the country. Photo: Ed JONES / AFP
Anti-government protest in Seoul have brought out a cross-section of the country. Photo: Ed JONES / AFP

“Who’s the real president of this country? Is it Choi or Park?” Thus implored one picket board at the now-daily protests being held in Seoul.

Public anger across South Korea – fired by stories of usurpation of government power by President Park Geun Hye’s long-time friend Choi Soon Shil – has surfaced like a volcanic eruption. A third nationwide rally, held on Saturday, attracted almost a million people from all over country. Led by rock bands and street performers, young protesters, some pushing baby carriages, marched through the main thoroughfare leading to the presidential Blue House mansion, encircling it through the night.

Their universal slogan was “Haya! Haya!” (Step Down, Step Down). Quite clearly those roused to demonstrate their anger will not be satisfied with allowing investigations into Park’s affairs to take their course. They want her immediate resignation.

Elected to office four years ago as the country’s first female head of state, Park has fewer than 14 months to run before the end of her term. Allegations of corruption and influence-peddling, in addition to her high-handed and secretive style of leadership, have shaken her administration to its core. And as the charges against her have grown, other rumors – lurid, if patchily substantiated – have spread too: one such has Park engaged in beauty treatments while news broke of a ferry loaded with schoolchildren sinking off the south of the peninsula in 2014.

In a move to contain the tide of indignation, Park has agreed to be questioned by a special prosecutor; she has also indicated she will accept an opposition-nominated prime minister who will take charge of day-to-day domestic affairs. Prosecution investigators are preparing to look into her role in the alleged extortion of over US$66 million from a dozen corporations, including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors. She faces accusations of personally “asking” them to make “contributions” to foundations under her control.

Those roused to demonstrate their anger will not be satisfied with allowing investigations into Park’s affairs to take their course

At the center of the burgeoning scandal is Choi, a 60-year-old businesswoman who has been Park’s friends for decades. Choi is the daughter of a religious mystic: her father, Choi Tae-min, became a mentor for Park – herself the daughter of the former military dictator, Park Chung-hee – following the assassination of her mother, Yuk Young-soo, in 1974. Choi has been arrested on charges of influence-peddling and milking corporations allegedly in the name of promoting Korean entertainment projects overseas. Rumoured to have taken care of such responsibilities as selecting Park’s outfits, she is also under investigation for having edited some of the president’s speeches, made policy suggestions and even influenced government appointments.

Politically, despite the demands for her to go, there is now a kind of stalemate. The three opposition groups in the single-chamber parliament lack the two-thirds majority needed to impeach her, and even if that process were to begin, the steps required to see it through mean it’s quite likely Park could safely see out the remainder of her term before a verdict was reached. Rather than pursue this strategy, the opposition coalition has opted to mobilize the streets.

Park’s own preference appears to be to allow them to come up with a prime minister with whom she can effectively share power. The idea, as privately outlined by one of her staff, is that she will limit her leadership to foreign policy matters, while the premier will be in charge of running government. In view of the virtual vote of non-confidence in her presidency, she is, in short, ready to accept half a role. Park’s ruling Saenuri party – now torn between loyalists and splittists – lacks any coherent alternative ideas.

Anti-government protesters dance on a street in central Seoul on November 12, 2016. Photo: Ed JONES / AFP

Whichever way the crisis plays out, it’s becoming clear that South Korea is locked in a serious political crisis at a time of extraordinary challenges from outside – most glaringly in North Korean’s nuclear threats. Concern for regional security and stability has also increased over the rising tensions in the East and South China Seas.

Park’s domestic troubles are already affecting Seoul’s foreign relations as she remains too stymied at home to participate in the forthcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit meeting. Nor is it clear if she can commit to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s invitation to a trilateral summit meeting in Tokyo with China, slated for a few weeks’ time. Moreover, the political turmoil in Seoul coincides also with the election, in Washington, of Donald Trump, who, among other things, has vowed to seek a renegotiation of the US-Korea free trade deal.

South Korean protesters have a long history of ousting dictators from power. They did so in 1960, 1979 and again in 1987. These revolutions all claimed a price in blood, mostly belonging to the country’s young people. This time, happily, that unfortunate pattern is changing, as voters demand the ousting of a freely and popularly elected president, mostly by peaceful means. Whether that counts as democratic progress is somewhat more dubious.