A lurid crisis embroiling the country’s first female president, her hated confidante and even a stash of Viagra is engulfing the government at a difficult time, writes Andrew Salmon
She is besieged, surrounded and despised – but is she disempowered?
Behind the gates of the presidential Blue House in central Seoul, guarded by battalions of riot police with hundreds of buses used to create mobile, bumper-to-bumper walls around the perimeter of the residence, South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, hunkers down in the eye of a storm, fighting for her political life.
Beyond the gates, beyond the bus barriers, millions of protesters were expected to gather late in November, chanting – with thunderous roars amplified by the downtown office blocks – ‘Park Geun-hye! Resign!’
South Korea, which achieved democracy after people-power protests in 1987, is periodically convulsed by mass demonstrations. In 1990, 2002 and 2008, protesters massed to make demands of (or demand the resignation of) the chief executive. And every Korean president enters a ‘lame duck’ period near the end of the single five-year term they are permitted. But the current protests are a phenomenon: Park is facing the biggest crowds seen since the heady, teargas-tinted days of 1987.
What has bought the former darling of Korea’s powerful right wing to this pass? She is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman who conjured an industrial powerhouse economy out of nothing to found Korea, Inc., in the 1960s. During the 2012 presidential election, that heritage made Park Jr beloved of the generation which remembers the bad old days of poverty, disease and malnutrition. Moreover, she was seen as clean. She had no family – both her parents were assassinated, and she is estranged from her two siblings – to besmirch her reign with the nepotism which customarily corrupts Korean elites.
As Korea’s first female president – one who was not only single, but was never even known to have had a boyfriend – Park was treated as a ‘virgin queen’. One of her PR staff told a TV interviewer she was ‘married to the Korean people’.
That marriage is now undergoing acrimonious divorce proceedings. Park is the subject of a whirlwind of reports, allegations and rumours that grow more damning daily. Although Korean presidents cannot be tried for crimes other than treason or insurrection, prosecutors have named her a criminal suspect. While no court proceedings have yet begun, she has been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion – a powerful force in Korea that arguably trumps actual courts of law.
At the heart of the crisis is her confidante, Choi Soon-sil. After the assassination of her mother in 1974, Choi’s father, the head of a religious cult with (allegedly) supernatural powers, became Park’s mentor. Park’s father was assassinated in 1979, and Choi Senior died in 1994. Since then, Choi Soon-sil has been Park Jr’s closest (and perhaps only) friend, but she has proven a poor one: she stands accused of virtually every crime and misdemeanour the public expected Park to be free of.
Rumours stated that Choi had peddled influence to gain her daughter back-door access to the prestigious Ewha Womans University, and was wheedling funds from chaebol – Korea’s giant, family-controlled conglomerates – to fund her equestrian training. Choi was alleged to be the key fundraiser behind two foundations which raised some KRW76 billion ($64.3 million). Park herself was said to have met with 17 conglomerate chairmen to urge them to pay up in return for alleged favours.
Choi herself is no smooth operator with a PhD or MBA, but a shabby uneducated matron, lacking any degree. She is allegedly part of her father’s dubious church, or even a shaman: easy to portray as the wicked witch of the east. Park’s core supporters, the Christian right, were appalled. When a tablet PC of Choi’s, containing presidential speeches which she had edited, was discovered by a TV station, everything went ballistic. Stories, allegations and rumours spread thick and fast.
Choi – who lacked security clearance – was not just editing Park’s speeches, she was receiving classified Blue House digests on national issues, it was claimed. Among other allegations: though she had no official position, shewas responsible for firing senior staff in the Ministry of Sports and Culture. She was Park’s key adviser on everything from her wardrobe to North Korean policy. She was a shaman who controlled Park’s mind, the power behind the presidency, and so on.
Though a constantly expanding team of prosecutors probed the allegations, and Choi was detained for questioning on her return from a stay in Germany, ordinary Koreans were unconvinced, since prosecutors are responsible to the Blue House. Crowds grew, with the usual demonstrators – left wingers, famers and trade unionists – joined by Koreans of all classes and ages, convinced the presidency had been usurped.
Park’s first responses only exacerbated the situation. She made a televised apology soon after the first ‘Choigate’ allegations were aired, and fired a group of aides, but this was seen as inadequate, and infuriated the public further. She then held a short press conference, during which, as is her habit, she took no questions. But she said she would be willing to co-operate with prosecutors, and denied cult allegations.
Soon, anything remotely dubious was being reported. Even a stash of Viagra acquired by Blue House officials (they claimed the pills were to prevent altitude sickness on trips to Africa) was subject to prosecution investigation.
After her first, weak-kneed response to the crisis, however, Park has become defiant, resisting pressure from the streets, the media, prosecutors and the National Assembly. She shows no sign of stepping down – unsurprising, given that she would be subject to criminal investigation as soon as she departs the Blue House. Her office said prosecution findings were based on ‘imagination and fantasy’ and that she would not meet prosecutors, going back on her earlier promise to co-operate.
She reversed course on other matters, first indicating that she would accept a new prime minister nominated by the National Assembly, then refusing to do so. After cancelling one overseas trip, she said she would meet Japanese and Chinese leaders in December, signalling continued management of state affairs.
Few would bet on Park completing her five-year term in February 2018. What is clear, are the risks – risks that may not be apparent to the huge, noisy and remarkably well-behaved crowds that mass on Saturdays to enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the rallies, complete with harangues, chanting and even musical performances.
National policymaking could be paralysed. One example was an opposition demand for the revocation of a Japan-Korea military intelligence sharing agreement, passed by the cabinet in mid-November. Even though the deal had been in the works since 2012, an invigorated left wing called it ‘rushed.’Major policies of the last four years, ranging from a Seoul-Tokyo agreement on ‘comfort women’ to the deployment of a US missile defence battery, could unravel if Choi is implicated in them.
The opposition in the National Assembly has been courting Park’s party to gather the two-thirds majority required for impeachment. In that event,the prime minister takes over while the Constitutional Court considers the case, and if impeachment is successful, a presidential election must be called.
Far from bringing a swift resolution of the crisis, national governance in South Korea could be derailed for weeks and months – at a time when the country is facing slowing growth and a rising economic challenge from China, with North Korea hovering threateningly, and with questions hanging over the foreign policy of the Trump administration. This rudderless ship of state bodes ill for all aboard.
Andrew Salmon, a Seoul-based reporter since 2003, is the author of several books, including the award-winning Korean War history To the Last Round (London, 2009). His latest is All
That Matters: Modern Korea (London 2014). This year he was awarded an MBE for service to British Korean War veterans