Feeding Frenzy: Political Fallout from South Korean Scandal Continues

Korea Chair Platform

The media feeding frenzy over the scandal involving President Park’s relationship with Choi Soon-sil is likely to grow more intense over the coming weeks as Choi undergoes prosecutorial questioning this week. Choi returned to South Korea over the weekend, and  appeared for questioning at the Supreme Prosecutors Office on Oct. 31.

The political scandal widened last week as members of Park’s cabinet and various government officials accused of having close ties to Choi were forced to resign. Even those seemingly unfamiliar with Choi were tainted by the public perception of serious improprieties and misjudgments in policymaking and influence on issues of national security. Over the weekend, large public protests calling for Park’s resignation or impeachment also took place from Seoul to Busan. The public fury emerging in the wake of the Choi scandal may be feeding on larger fears about the weakening state of the economy, rising inequality, and persistent corruption between big business and the government. However, at its core the anger evidenced by these protests and the wall-to-wall media coverage in Korea also seems to reflect deeper, pent-up frustration with Park’s aloof, opaque style of governing.

As bad as the situation is likely to become, the crisis that engulfs President Park is sadly too familiar.  Each of the past Korean presidencies has suffered at least one backbreaking scandal.

Lee Myung-bak’s presidency (2008-2013) was scandalized by revelations in 2012 that his older brother and close aides had accepted bribes from two Korean banks. In 2013, a signature policy plan of the Lee government, known as the “Four Rivers Project,” was tainted by allegations that it was a front for a gigantic slush fund intended to funnel money to construction companies and fund President Lee’s retirement.

The Roh Moo-hyun presidency (2003-2008) survived an impeachment crisis that was based on allegations of undue interference in National Assembly elections. But after his term ended, Roh’s legacy was scarred by revelations that the politician who epitomized “clean politics” had a brother accused of taking bribes and a wife and son who shook down others for large amounts of cash.  In the end, it was more than Roh could handle, sadly resulting in his suicide in May 2009.

During the Kim Dae-Jung administration (1998-2003), Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim’s sons were arrested in 2002 and charged with exploiting the presidential office for large sums of money and real estate. And in 2003, a major scandal broke when it was alleged that the ROK government paid some $500 million for the 2000 inter-Korean summit.  The scandal was seen as a contributing factor in the suicide of Chung Mong-Hun chairman of Hyundai Asan that year.

Kim Young-sam’s administration (1993-1998), known for spearheading government reforms and tackling political corruption, was also rocked by the arrest of Kim’s son and a close aide on charges of bribery and tax evasion in 1997.

Presidents Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993) and Chun Doo-hwan (1981-1988) after leaving office were both convicted in 1996 of corruption, mutiny, and treason for their roles in the 1980 Gwangju massacre and the 1979 assassination of Park Chung-hee and military coup, though both were later pardoned by then President Young-sam.

Politics is undeniably a bloodsport in Korea, and it looks as though the embattled Park will lose a pint or two as well. The media frenzy has heightened speculation that the president will be forced to resign. But at least at this point, such an outcome is unlikely.

The reason has less to do with the scandal (which will now shift to the questioning of Choi Soon-sil), and more to do with politics. For the political opposition, Park’s resignation would not necessarily redound positively. An election would be required within 60 days and right now, none of the opposition candidates poll well enough to ensure a victory. None of them poll better the Ban Ki-moon, moreover, who may announce a run for the presidency once his term as UN Secretary-General ends this year. Finally, holding the reins of a caretaker government in a presidential election year does not necessarily guarantee a win in December 2017, and might even hurt their chances. For these reasons, opposition leaders have been excoriating Park, but they have not been openly calling for resignation.

What about impeachment? Again, the politics don’t necessarily play well for the opposition. Impeachment can be a dual-edged sword. Impeachment proceedings could do more to mobilize and unite the conservative base in Korea, which is otherwise factionalized and lukewarm to Park. Impeachment proceedings against progressive President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004 passed in the National Assembly 193-2, but when the Constitutional Court overruled the decision two months later, the result was a groundswell of popular support for Roh (the only ROK president to have been impeached).

Given her inner steeliness, it is unlikely Park would resign. She may end up serving out her last year as president without a party to support her, and with a neutral prime minister running the government. 

Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Lisa Collins