Victor Cha on Political Crisis in South Korea

Korea Chair Platform

South Korea’s president has been rocked by scandal. Accusations of influence-peddling tied to her relationship with a long-time friend and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, caused outrage among South Koreans. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in Seoul and elsewhere to demand President Park Geun-hye’s resignation or impeachment. To better understand the legal, political, and foreign policy ramifications of the scandal, The Diplomat’s Shannon Tiezzi speaks with Victor Cha, senior adviser and Korea Chair at the  Center for Strategic and International Studies as well as director of Asian studies and D.S. Song-KF Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
The details of Park Geun-hye's relationship with Choi Soon-sil are troubling, and prosecutors are already looking into the allegations raised by media reports. What specific legal violations are potentially involved?

The main concern from a public relations perspective is the view that she [Park] betrayed the trust of the nation by seeking counsel from a private citizen, who has a sordid past of her own. Choi used her influence with the president to collect large sums of money from large Korean conglomerates.

The main concern from a legal perspective is that the president may have divulged classified information to Choi in seeking her advice. There is a lot of speculation in the media right now, and in a sense the president has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion based on rumor and innuendo. This puts tremendous pressure on prosecutors to act in line with the predominant narrative, lest they be seen as tainted. Once the prosecution finds any criminal activity on the part of Park in this scandal, the opposition parties have the legal grounds to pursue impeachment. But whether they will is an open question, given the past experience with the impeachment of Roh Moo-hyun (whose impeachment in 2004 was overruled by the Constitutional Court, which resulted in a groundswell of support for Roh).
South Korea has seen its share of high-profile political scandals. What makes the current "Choi-gate" different?

I think it is a perfect storm. The revelations about Park and Choi – which, by comparison, are not objectively that much different from past scandals involving presidents – come at a time when four   years of her presidency have not been able to deliver promised economic growth. Unemployment among the college-educated remains high, and the rich keep getting richer in Korea while the less well-heeled continue to struggle. The North Korean problem continues to worsen. Park’s leadership style had always been    under scrutiny – not very transparent, not much public accessibility, operating with a small group of advisors. And she effectively enters a lame duck year in 2017 – the last year of a single term five-year presidency. I think the combination of all these things is what has brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets.
What is the likelihood Park will be forced out of office – either formally impeached or successfully pressured to resign – before her term is  up?

It’s hard to say. I do believe that she feels a responsibility to remain in power at a difficult time with electoral changes in the U.S. and a burgeoning North Korea threat. If you look at her actions recently, they are almost singularly focused on making Korea as secure as she can make it in her remaining time in office – increased defense budgets, THAAD, and now GSOMIA [the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan]. From her perspective, this is probably the most important thing that she can leave with the country.

Regarding impeachment, criminality as determined by the prosecutors will form the legal basis for impeachment. And the opposition party, at 165 seats, could probably find 35 more seats to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. But the political calculations are not clear. First, there is the precedent of Roh Moo- hyun’s impeachment, which totally backfired on the conservatives. Second, an impeachment or resignation would require a snap election within 60 days – no party is ready for that and do not feel they have the support to win just yet. Third, an impeachment process could stretch out for months given the need for a Constitutional Court ruling. Fourth, there is even talk among the parties of a constitutional revision to reduce the power of the presidency.

So there is a lot in the air right now, with no clear leadership outside the presidency. Absent the emergence of a national consensus around that leadership, it is hard to see how impeachment would make things better necessarily. As my colleague Dave Kang stated recently, there is a power vacuum whether she stays or whether she goes.
Despite low approval ratings for Park, South Korea's  opposition has had trouble gaining traction with voters. Do you think the major opposition parties – the Minjoo Party and the People's Party – can capitalize on this scandal in next year's presidential election?

The lack of leadership is the problem. If an election were held today, there are at least three to four candidates from the opposition who would vie, and could easily split the vote. Ahn Chul-soo of the People’s Party appears to be the most vocal in favor of Park’s stepping down, probably because he thinks he could win a 60-day election. But no party is prepared to operate on such a short timeline – in terms of organization, ground game, etc – given that they were all aiming for December 2017 as the election.

I think the most important thing now is for political leaders to behave responsibly and not merely tactically for short-term political gain. Korea is in crisis at a time of a new U.S. administration and an unpredictable and threatening North Korea. Leaders need to stop playing politics and sit down across the aisle and with the president, to find a solution that will be in the best interests of the country and democracy. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that such an outcome will be obtained.
The Choi scandal has left Park's credibility in tatters. What implications might that have for some of her more controversial foreign policy decisions, including the THAAD agreement with the United States and the "comfort women" agreement with Japan?

I don’t think the current crisis will have an impact on these policies. I also do not think a new administration, whether elected in December 2017 or earlier, will try to walk back either of these decisions.
How do you think North Korea is likely to react to the ongoing scandal involving the top leader of its arch-rival?

Our CSIS Beyond Parallel Study finds that North Korea targets U.S. presidential and congressional by-elections with provocations as a way to both gain attention and demonstrate a position of strength to the new administration. We predicted that North Korea would do provocations within a window of 26 days before of after the U.S. presidential election based on an average calculated over the past elections. Pyongyang obliged in that there were two MRBM [medium-range ballistic missile] tests in the run-up to the election. We expect more in the aftermath of President-elect Trump’s victory.

However, the interesting thing is that Pyongyang has not yet taken such actions. We attribute this to the fact that the ongoing scandal has given them pause. They are watching how this will all play out in the South and perhaps do not want to give Park any recourse to consolidate her political foothold by pivoting off a North Korean provocation. We have seen this in the past. When Kim Il-sung was in power and Park’s father was assassinated in 1979, archives from the Wilson Center of conversations with Romanian President Ceaucescu depicted a Kim that wanted to observe how the situation would play out in the South rather than try to take advantage of it. It is ironic that the offspring of both of these men appear to be playing out a similar path, with Kim Jong-un watching and Park Geun-hye struggling to hold on to power. History does not repeat, but it often rhymes.

This interview appeared originally in the December 2016 issue of the Diplomat Magazine.

Dr. Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Ambassador Robert Gallucci is a distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Ms. Shannon Tiezzi is Editor of The Diplomat.

Photo credit: Jean Chung/Getty Images
Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Shannon Tiezzi