By: Brian L
On November 12th, as many as 1 million angry South Koreans gathered in Seoul to protest to call for the abdication of the president. Under the rule of many authoritarian governments, including the period of president Park Jung Hee, who became the president through a military coup in 1961, violent protests and brutal fighting with the police became prominent in the history of South Korea. But on that day, the people, ranging from mothers with strollers, students in uniforms holding signs, the elderly, and many men and women, gathered peacefully and lifted their candles and signs. Ever since September 29, when around 20,000 people (police estimate) gathered, protests have been going on in not only in the capital Seoul, but all over the country. On November 5th, around 50,000 gathered, and on the 12th, the South Korean citizens really showed that they were serious about their will for the president to resign.
What could have the president done to provoke such actions? Let’s find out.
Corrupt governments and government officials, even the president, is not a rare sight in Korea. According to the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, the country ranks 43rd, and a 2015 report released by the OECD showed that ‘almost 70 percent of South Koreans distrust their government, while less than 30 percent of them are confident in the nation’s judicial system.’ This rate is significantly lower than the OECD average, which was 41.8 percent. When the current president Park Geun Hye became inaugurated in 2013, South Koreans were ready for change. But throughout her 5-year term, the president has shown many occasions of incompetence that not only puzzled, but angered the public and the press. During the Sewol Ferry disaster, where over 300 students had died while on their way to a field trip to JeJu island, the president was clear in her actions and words that she was not aware of what was happening, and as a result, over 300 student lost their lives. George W. Bush was criticized for his delay of 7 minutes during the 9.11, but president Park was nowhere to be found for 7 hours during the Sewol Ferry incident, and the public were angered. Even besides that, she has displayed choices on numerous occasions throughout her term that puzzled the press and the public, and even angered them. But nobody could have predicted what was to be the biggest political scandal in Park’s career, the scandal involving Choi Soon Sil, a personal friend of Park.
The relationship between Park and Choi’s family has been something of a urban legend, although the details are fuzzy and mysterious. After the president’s mother was assassinated by a bullet meant for her husband, then-president Park Jung Hee, in 1974, it is said that a pastor by the name of Chio Tae Min, a leader of a religious cult called ‘Church of Eternal Life’, approached the grieving Park, who was thrusted into the role of first lady, saying that he could contact the spirit of her dead mother. In a diplomatic cable from 2007 released by WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website, the American embassy in Seoul reported rumours that the late Choi had had ‘complete control’ over Ms Park’s ‘body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result’. The report referred the late Choi as a ‘Korean Rasputin’. President Park has denied any claims made about her improper, and even unhealthy relationship with Choi Tae Min.
Her relationship with Choi Soon Sil, who is 4 years younger than her, seems to have developed during that period. Choi has been said to be able to use the same ‘powers’ as her father, and continued ‘contacting’ Park’s mother. Park has been known to have said that Choi helped her through difficult times. Four years after the death of Choi Tae Min in 1994, Park reentered the political scene, entering the national assembly, and even entering the race for presidency.
Park’s government has been through some rough spots, including the scandal of Lee Wan Koo, the former prime minister who resigned after being involved in a corruption scandal, tarnishing the reputation of the president and the government. But the scandal that came into light this year was even beyond the imagination of the Korean people, who are used to and tired of corrupt politicians. Choi is accused of influencing and advising the president on matters as serious as foreign policy against North Korea, appointing cabinet members, and even tampering with speeches and wardrobe choices for international events. She is also accused of using her presidential connections to convince some of South Korea’s biggest firms such as Samsung, to funnel 80 billion won ($70 million) into two cultural foundations she controlled through associates, K-Sports and Mir, for her personal benefit and gain. Even besides that, there is the incident involving her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, who competed at various international equestrian competitions using the power and influence of her mother, and was accepted into Ehwa University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious higher education institutions, by influencing the professors and the dean. The students of Ehwa University has been protesting after a research paper Chung wrote, which received a good grade even though it was poorly done, was released. The dean ended up resigning. What is bewildering and infuriating the Koreans, who are used to corruption, are the facts that a civilian with no policy or political experience, who also has ties to a shady and questionable cult, has been controlling and influencing the president’s judgement.
Choi has been questioned by prosecutors since she returned from Germany. A warrant has been requested for her arrest. Choi is known to have said that she ‘committed a crime punishable by death’, but has denied allegations against using her influence on government decisions and corruption.
President Park’s approval rating plummeted, coming to rest at 5%, and among the 20 to 40s 0%. This makes her the most unloved president in the history of South Korea. Park has made 2 public apologies, which were met with much negative criticism, and accepted the investigations initially, but took back words and later refused, which angered the public. Her refusing to step down and disregard the public in such a manner while still running the government, has put her in a precarious position. Some say impeachment is the answer, while some say she should just resign. There is also an opinion that she is going to hold out, even if it’s a lame duck government. According to The Economist, Realmeter, a pollster, says popular support for her resignation or impeachment has risen from 42% to 74% in the past three weeks.
This is no doubt a pivotal period in the history of South Korea’s democracy. Many Korean presidents have had their final years in office marred by corruption scandals, and yet the nature of this incident is different from the rest. The very nature of democracy in Korea was shaken to the core. But no matter the consequence, one thing is very sure. It’s a tragic time for Korea and its citizens.