Controversy Roils Park Government

This week a political scandal involving Choi Soon-sil, a friend and personal adviser to President Park Geun-hye, has engulfed South Korean domestic politics. The concerns center around Choi, a private citizen, having been given access by Park to speeches, official documents, and possibly classified material for advisory purposes. There are also allegations that Choi used her relationship with the president to solicit millions of dollars for two foundations. There have been calls in the legislature for the president’s resignation or impeachment as her poll numbers hit record lows of 17 percent.

Q1: Who is Choi Soon-sil?

A1: Choi Soon-sil is the fifth daughter of President Park’s late mentor Choi Tae-min and the ex-wife of Park’s former aide Chung Yoon-hoi, who served as her chief of staff from 1998 to 2004. Park’s relationship with the Choi family goes back to 1974.

Choi departed the country upon news of the scandal, finally resurfacing in Hessen, Germany, on October 27, where she gave a controversial exclusive interview to Segye Ilbo (in Korean) admitting to receiving secret presidential documents from Cheong Wa Dae but denying allegations of meddling in state affairs and corporate wrongdoings.

Q2: What are next likely steps?

A2: On October 27, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office launched a special investigative bureau of around 15 prosecutors for the Choi Soon-sil case. The bureau will carry out the investigation and report directly to Prosecutor General Kim Soon-nam until the three political parties can agree to set up an independent council to handle the case. The focus will likely be on criminal prosecution of Choi, the revelations of which will then determine what, if any, political actions might ensue vis-à-vis President Park. Each dimension of this scandal involves different alleged violations of South Korean law. The charges could range from embezzlement and tax evasion to violations of the Presidential Record Management Act. On October 28, Choi’s lawyer told reporters she will return to Korea for questioning upon request of the authorities. But if she fails to return voluntarily to South Korea and charges are filed, authorities could seek Choi’s extradition from Germany based on applicable terms of South Korea’s ratification of the European Convention on Extradition.

Q3: Will President Park resign?

A3: Not likely. Despite calls from the opposition parties for her resignation (which are only likely to grow during the Choi investigation), the more likely outcome is that she may heed demands to leave the Saenuri Party, particularly if Saenuri wants to distance itself from Park in the 2017 presidential election year. Her administration will likely take the biggest hit, as her chief of staff already tendered his resignation on October 26, and she has ordered all 10 of her presidential senior secretaries to resign today.

Q4: Are opposition party calls for impeachment credible?

A4: It's complicated. Though some may call for this, it is a dual-edged sword. In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached by the National Assembly, but after the Constitutional Court found the impeachment unconstitutional during its required 180-day review, Roh and the progressives experienced a groundswell of public support. The 2017 presidential electoral politics will hang over the Minjoo and People’s parties’ strategy of whether to pursue impeachment.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair