South Korea

The President's friend

Print edition : December 09, 2016

Park Geun-hye addressing the nation on November 4. She has pledged to submit to an inquiry into her ties with Choi Soon-sil. Photo: Ed Jones/REUTERS

Choi Soon-sil being escorted from the Central District Court in Seoul following her arrest, on November 3. Photo: AFP

In one of the biggest protest rallies South Korea has seen, people from all over the country congregated in Seoul on November 12 demanding that the President tender her resignation immediately. Photo: Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Protests against President Park Gyeun-hye of South Korea gain momentum in the wake of revelations of corruption and the vice-like grip an adviser had on her.

A SCANDAL of humongous poportions has hit South Korean President Park Gyeun-hye and plunged domestic politics into turmoil. Public support for her is now in single digits, and calls for her resignation are getting louder by the day. The South Korean capital, Seoul, has been witnessing huge protests since the scandal erupted in full force at the end of October. One of the biggest protest rallies South Korea has seen was held on November 12, with people from all over the country congregating in Seoul demanding that the President tender her resignation immediately. The protesters chanted in unison that the President should “come out and surrender”.

Park Gyeun-hye has less than a year and a half to complete her term in office. But as more and more sordid revelations emerge, the signs are ominous for the country’s first woman President. Park Gyeun-hye was elected in 2012 on a right-wing platform espousing national security, economic growth and a corruption-free government. She had promised an end to the culture of corruption that had perennially plagued South Korean politics.

As an opposition lawmaker, she had cultivated an image of probity. The fact that she was the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee had also bolstered her image. Many Koreans, particularly those belonging to the older generation, idolised the former military general who seized power in a military coup in 1961. He was in power until his assassination in 1979 at the hands of Kim Jae-gyu, the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). Park Gyeun-hye’s mother fell prey to a Japanese-born assassin’s bullet in 1974, which missed Park Chung-hee, the intended target.

Cult leader’s influence

After her mother’s assassination, Park Gyeun-hye came under the influence of a charismatic cult leader who at that time went under the name of Choi Tae-min. In his long career as a spiritual healer, occultist and head of a Christian evangelical cult, he had assumed several aliases.

The young Park Gyeun-hye, heartbroken by the untimely demise of her mother, was convinced by Choi Tae-min that she would be able to communicate with the spirit of her mother. From that time on, the preacher and his family became extremely close to her. She never married and is estranged from her two siblings, a brother and a sister. Unlike her predecessors in office, she did not have greedy relatives exploiting their closeness to the presidency. “I have no child to inherit my properties. You, the people, are my only family, and to make you happy is the only reason I do politics,” she said while taking over the presidency.

The last three Presidents were accused of corruption and investigated after they left office. One former President, Roh Myoo-hun, whom many South Koreans considered the least corrupt head of state, committed suicide in 2009 as investigations into the corrupt activities of his close relatives were going on.

After the death of Choi Tae-min, his daughter Choi Soon-sil stepped into Park Gyeun-hye’s life. A U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks in 2007 quoting sources in Seoul described the senior Choi as a “Rasputin”-like figure who had “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated fabulous wealth as a result”.

Park Gyeun-hye officiated as South Korea’s first lady after the death of her mother. Choi Tae-min also had enormous influence on her authoritarian father. Now it has emerged that Choi Soon-sil’s influence over Park Gyeun-hye was also all pervasive. Apparently the South Korean President depended considerably on the advice of Choi Soon-sil while taking important decisions.

It has now become clear that Choi Soon-sil played a key role in the President’s decision to close down the jointly run South and North Korean industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea. According to reports in the South Korean media, Choi Soon-sil was present at the closed-door meeting in which the decision was taken to close down the industrial park.

Downhill relations with North Korea

President Park Gyeun-hye had pledged to improve relations with North Korea after taking office and to tackle economic inequality. But all her campaign promises were soon forgotten. Relations with the North went further downhill. Her hawkish views on the North, probably inherited from her father who was a known Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, have been mainly responsible for the tense security situation in the Korean peninsula.

The current leaders of both North and South Korea are dynastic leaders. Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul were even more tense when Park Chung-hee was the President of South Korea. There has been a record of hostilities between the two families.

Park Gyeun-hye’s decision earlier in the year to install the sophisticated American anti-missile THAAD batteries on South Korean territory has angered China. It claims that the THAAD systems based in South Korea seriously impair the security balance that prevails in the region. Many Koreans are also unhappy with the deal she struck with Japan on the emotive issue of Korean “comfort women” forcibly enslaved to be sex workers in military brothels during the Second World War.

After Park Gyeun-hye assumed the presidency, her key speeches were first vetted by Choi Soon-sil, despite her being a private citizen without a high-level security clearance. The President initially denied that that there was any wrongdoing and called the allegations “baseless”. It was the discovery of a discarded computer used by Choi Soon-sil that provided concrete evidence that more than 40 speeches made by Park Gyeun-hye when she was running for President and later after she assumed the high office were vetted and approved by Choi Soon-sil. The President even depended on her advice about the colour of clothes to wear on particular days. Choi Soon-sil even had advance notice of itineraries of the foreign trips undertaken by the President. She used her influence with the President to place her cronies in important positions of power so that they could influence government policies.

According to the Korean newspaper Hankoryeh, Choi Soon-sil used her clout to register two foundations bypassing strict government checks and controls. Top Korean conglomerates such as Samsung contributed large amounts of money to these foundations. More than $70 million found its way to Germany where Choi Soon-sil had established shell companies and dabbled in real estate.

In another case, Choi Soon-sil misused her closeness to the President to get her daughter admitted to an elite South Korean university. A conservative newspaper said that South Korea in the last four years was actually under a Choi Soon-sil administration.

The KCIA chief had said that his major reason for shooting Park Chung-hee was the close relationship between the former President and Choi’s father. He had told a Korean court that he carried out the assassination to stop Choi Tae-min from exploiting his friendship to indulge in corruption and more importantly to keep his daughter, the current President, from the clutches of the Rasputin-like figure.

Friendless

Now Park Gyeun-hye has been left friendless. Her mentor-cum-adviser Choi Soon-sil was forced to return from Germany and surrender to the authorities. The President has tearfully admitted to some of her lapses, saying that she shared only “certain documents” with Choi Soon-sil. She has apologised to the South Korean people and has pledged to submit to an inquiry by prosecutors looking into her ties with her spiritual adviser and close friend.

Park Gyeun-hye had earlier announced that she was severing her ties with Choi Soon-sil and dismissed eight of her political aides who had close ties with her disgraced friend. She also replaced the Prime Minister and two other Ministers, but the South Korean parliament refused to accept her new choice for the post of Prime Minister.

The opposition has a majority in the parliament. Even her close conservative supporters in the National Assembly have deserted her. To divert attention from the scandal, Park Gyeun-hye suggested in late September that the President’s tenure should not be confined to just five years and that the Constitution should be amended to remove the one-term limit. She said that a “one term” presidency hampered continuity in policy, especially the policy towards North Korea.

Liberal Presidents who preceded her had favoured reconciliation with the North. The “sunshine policy” towards the North, which was started by President Kim Dae-jung, had won plaudits internationally and brought a much-needed calm to the Korean peninsula.

Running out of political options, the South Korean President gave up the prerogative to choose the nominee to replace the sacked Prime Minister in the second week of November and instead permitted the parliament to pick a new Prime Minister. Scenting blood, the opposition is now demanding that the President hand over a wide range of her decision-making powers to a Prime Minister picked by the National Assembly. Even within her own Saenuri party, 50 members of parliament have raised the banner of revolt. “Park has lost her authority as President and showed that she does not have the basic qualities to run a country,” said Jae Myung-lee, a leader of the opposition Minjoo party.

The recent developments have prematurely transformed Park Gyeun-hye into a lame-duck President. Recent opinion polls show that she is the least-loved President since South Korea transitioned from military rule in the late 1980s.

She will try to brazen it out until the end of her term. As President, she remains constitutionally immune from prosecution, except on charges of sedition and conspiring with foreign countries. The South Korean Constitution also has a clause that makes it impossible for a sitting President to be impeached. But the protests on the streets are gaining momentum as more and sordid revelations emerge. In the face of massive popular discontent, Park Gyeun-hye will find it difficult to complete her full term in office.

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