Engulfed by scandal, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye is banking on a change of political style to save her presidency, writes Hyung-A-Kim.
More than two weeks after revelations of South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s mismanagement of her presidential power by allowing her friend Choi Soon-sil to exert her influence on Park’s decision-making, the entire Korean nation seems to be witnessing the tail-end of Park’s personalised presidential power.
Tens of thousands of angry protesters are demanding Park’s resignation or impeachment through public rallies, candlelight vigils and other forms of public denunciations, including student protests and a massive rally in central Seoul on 5 November. Park, however, appears determined to stay in office for the remaining 14 months of her single five-year term, which expires in February 2018.
In response to public demands for reform, she at last sacked her chief of staff and five of her closest aides in the Blue House (the executive office and official residence of the president), including the so-called ‘doorknob trio’—a sarcastic nickname for Park’s three personal secretaries who have reportedly monopolised all communication channels with Park— and Woo Byung-woo, senior secretary for civil affairs, who was at the centre of a string of corruption scandals involving property deals by his in-laws among others.
She then stretched this gesture by reaching across political boundaries to appoint various influential individuals from the progressive governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and from the conservative Yi Myong-bak government, as if buying a new portfolio of life insurance policies.
Park picked, for example, Han Gwang-ok, former chief of staff of the late President Kim Dae-jung (1998–2002), as her new chief of staff, and nominatied Kim Byong-joon, who served as a senior presidential policy advisor during the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003–07), as the new prime minister.
She also picked former prosecutor Choi Jai-kyeong as the new senior secretary for civil affairs to replace Woo Byung-woo, her precious right-hand prosecutor. Like his predecessor, Choi was known for his role during the presidency of Yi Myong-bak (2008–12), which earned him the nickname of ‘political prosecutor’.
In addition to these extraordinary gestures, Park even promised in her second public apology speech that she would accept a prosecutorial investigation of Choi Soon-sil’s scandal by assuring that, ‘If I have to be investigated, I am ready to accept that as well’ (Korea Times, 4 November 2016). Meanwhile, her latest approval rating has nosedived to a record low 5 per cent.
What makes this corruption scandal so different from the many involving Park’s predecessors is that she fundamentally mismanaged her ‘divine rights’ as president by delegating her authority to her non-elected confidante, enabling Choi to meddle in state affairs which, according to Yoo Seung-min, a former floor leader of the Saenuri Party in the National Assembly, essentially means a ‘destruction of the Constitution’ (Chosun ilbo, 3 November 2016).
This view seems to reflect the core objection of angry Korean protesters demanding Park’s immediate resignation or impeachment. To them, Park has lost her political, legal and moral legitimacy as president through her own making.
So, how should we understand this complex scandal, dubbed ‘Park Geun-hye—Choi Soon-sil Gate’, that threatens Park’s fall?
As the daughter of the late president Park Chung-hee (1963–79), whose legacy was Korea’s ‘economic miracle’ on the one hand and draconian dictatorship on the other, Park Geun-hye’s rise to the presidency just 14 years after she entered politics in 1998 was, possible, largely because of the backing of Korean conservatives, especially the power elite force, namely, the Saenuri Party (formerly the Grand National Party until February 2012), the media and family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol.
To this power elite, Park Geun-hye had an unbeatable asset: about 33 per cent of the country’s mostly older voters, with their cult-like nostalgia for the authoritarian leadership of Park Chung-hee, supported her almost blindly, linking her to her father in their expectation of a second coming of Korea’s economic prosperity. Park’s rise to the presidency was their surest investment to maintain their vested interests, especially after the public’s disappointment with her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
As president, Park was able to get away with her widely known personalised style of governing, or so-called ‘notebook politics’, through which she has made obscure policy-making instructions and choices for senior appointments.
Park reduced the executive roles of her cabinet ministers and the ruling Saenuri Party lawmakers to mere rubber-stamping. Yet she has been fiercely protected by the conservative power elite, especially the so-called ‘pro-Park’ politicians and their media–chaebol alliance, which has not only acquiesced in Park’s personalised political power, now found to have covertly relied on Choi’s so-called ‘Shamanistic guidance’, but also collaborated with the Park–Choi Gate arrangement.
Recent revelations through many digitalised documents show that this conservative elite and many opposition politicians knew as early as 2007, if not earlier, who Choi was and how Park had maintained her relationship with her, and Choi’s father, Choi Tak-min, a shamanistic pseudo–religious cult leader whom Park initially knew in the mid-1970s.
It was also no secret that Choi’s ex-husband, Jeong Yun-hoe, was one of Park’s longest-serving aides, and in November 2014, the prosecution willingly glossed over the allegation that Jeong, too, had meddled in state affairs.
By then, Park’s mysterious relationship with the Choi family over the past four decades, from Choi Tak-min to his two daughters and other family members, was relatively well-known gossip not only among many politicians from both the conservative and progressive camps, but also among social commentators, the media and, of course, the business community.
None of them, however, did anything to block Park’s personalised political power until now. The ruling Saenuri Party, especially the pro-Park faction, in fact, defended Park in the manner of Hitler’s ‘Brownshirts’ while building their own personal power, as noted by one commentator (Kyunghyang sinmun, 4 November 2016).
In terms of political–economic alliance, the chaebol have been active in providing donations of up to KW80 billion ($US70 million) to two newly established foundations, Mir and K-sports, which were allegedly set up by Choi. For the establishment of the Mir Foundation alone, Samsung contributed the largest amount, KW12.5 billion, followed by Hyundai Motor (KW8.5million), SK (KW6.8billion), LG (KW4.8 billion), Lotte (KW2.8billion (Hankyoreh sinmun, 3 November 2016) and POSCO which, according to Chosun Ilbo (4 November 2016), ‘fell prey to those in power’ in Park–Choi Gate.
How then did Park come to be exposed in such an explosive manner at this particular time?
For the ruling Saenuri Party, last April’s devastating election result seems to have convinced it to desert Park by holding her responsible
One answer can be found through the conservative media. Park-Choi Gate was initially exposed by JTBC, the television channel of the JoongAng Media Network, which owns JoongAng Ilbo, one of the three biggest conservative newspapers published in Seoul, and is family-related to Samsung, the largest chaebol, dubbed in South Korea as the Republic of Samsung.
In exposing Park–Choi Gate, with a heavy emphasis on moral rectitude, just 14 months before Park’s presidential term expires, JTBC and other leading newspapers and media organisations not only avoided public scrutiny of their own role in Park’s personalised politics, but also appear to have helped chaebol, especially Samsung, by shifting the focus of public anger and condemnation away from chaebol over their role in Park–Choi Gate.
For the ruling Saenuri Party, last April’s devastating election result seems to have convinced it to desert Park by holding her responsible, and to change its structure by forcing her to resign from the party and by adopting a new party name, if necessary, especially before the 2017 presidential election, as it has done before.
Despite the political and social chaos, Park–Choi Gate could be a tipping point for real change, if and when Korean politicians and voters seriously reflect on their record of presidential scandals and learn from their mistakes.
No president has been scandal-free since South Korea was democratised in 1987. In the case of former president Roh Moo-hyun, he was driven to suicide in May 2009 during a probe into corruption allegations against him and his family. Then, the progressive parties, led by the so-called, ‘pro-Roh faction’ and its supporters, deserted Roh while he was chased by the media. As Karl Marx noted, ‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce’.
Protest for the resignation of President Park Geun-hye, 29 October 2016. Photo: Jjw, Creative Commons licence.