by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Korea.net/CC
SOUTH KOREA is in the throes of a bizarre political crisis due to controversy over President Park Geun-Hye’s strange devotion to her advisor Choi Soon-sil. Choi’s hold over Park has been characterized as “Rasputin-like” in much western media coverage to date. Choi is the daughter of deceased cult leader Choi Tae-min, who apparently secured Park’s devotion during a time of emotional crisis for Park after the assassination of her father and mother. Park is the daughter of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in in 1979, and she is head of the conservative Saenuri Party. Choi’s influence on Park came to the media’s attention after investigation into the rigged admission of Choi’s daughter into Ewha Woman’s University led to revelations about the relationship between Choi and Park.
Park seems to have allowed Choi access to classified government information, allowed Choi to influence key decision-making, and even allowed Choi to choose her outfits for high-profile meetings with foreign heads of state. Choi also seems to have embezzled $70 million in government money through Park, with Park covering for her. As pointed out by the blog Ask A Korean in “The Irrational Downfall of Park Geun-hye”, the strangest aspect of the scandal would be the “self-sacrificing” nature of Park’s devotion to Choi, with Park allowing embezzlement not out of self-interest, but out of devotion to Choi—and Park even now seeking to defend Choi. While corruption by Korean politicians may not be anything new, the extent of Park’s devotion to Choi seems irrational. Some of Park’s strange behavior in the past, such as incomprehensible speeches or odd religious ceremonies hosted by the Saenuri Party, now seem to make sense in light of Choi’s influence over Park. Choi’s possible influence upon Park’s handling of the MV Sewol ferry disaster is also controversial, as Park had a seven hour meeting with Choi in its aftermath.
South Korea has seen mass protest in recent days, with protestors taking to the streets of Seoul calling on Park to resign, claiming that revelations indicate that Park is not fit for the presidency. While facing calls for her and her cabinet to resign, Park has ordered all of her secretaries to resign. With the country spiraling into political crisis, it is unclear what actions Park may take next. If Park does not resign, presidential elections will still take place next year in South Korea, but it is worth considering what course of action Park will take next. Choi has since been arrested, Park’s approval rating is at an all-time low, and Park has apologized for her actions. Reportedly on Saturday up to 200,000 demonstrated in Seoul outside of Gwanghwamun.
Though the political opposition is leveraging recent revelations in the build-up to elections, the Park administration saw some massive demonstrations against it last year, with 60,000 to 130,000 demonstrating in September 2015. Demonstrators were protesting the Park administration attempting to whitewash new high school textbooks coverage of past government crimes during previous eras of dictatorship, such as during rule by Park’s father, Park Chung-hee. Textbooks would have whitewashed Korean conservatives’ actions during the authoritarian period, diminished the 1980s democratization movement’s importance, and toned down both criticisms of American intervention in Korean political affairs as well as Japanese war crimes. Demonstrators were also protesting neoliberal reforms aimed at breaking down the lifetime system of employment that previously existed in South Korea, making it easier for corporations to fire workers. Heavy police force was used to put down demonstrations.
Given Park’s background in South Korea’s authoritarian past, increasing restrictions on press freedoms and individual liberties under Park Geun-hye were seen as harkening back to the authoritarian rule of her father. But this present controversy also returns to South Korea’s authoritarian past, given that Choi Soon-sil came to have such a powerful influence on Park Geun-hye because her father, Choi Tae-min was an associate of Park Chung-hee. Kim Jae-gyu, the director of the KCIA and assassin of Park Chung-hee, stated one of his motives for the assassination was to try and stem Choi Tae-min’s influence on the young Park Geun-hye. Choi Tae-min seems to have approached Park after her mother’s assassination, claiming that he could communicate with the spirit of Park’s deceased mother. Choi Tae-min’s daughter would later come to take over his role of undue influence over Park Geun-hye.
Again, these events may return to the internal logic of authoritarianism. Irrational behavior and paranoia proliferates in authoritarian regimes, with authoritarian leaders becoming bizarrely reliant on conmen advisors who tell them what they want to hear, especially when they may distrust others as potential threats to power. Much of this may return to the undue influence of cult-like religious organizations over political life in South Korea, many of which are organizations which profess Buddhist or Christian leanings.
Following the scandal, Park’s days in power may be limited, but until the end of her term she might still take dramatic actions to try to maintain power. Although Park’s presidential term should end in 2017, Park previously pushed to pass laws allowing presidents to run for a second term. A second run seems unlikely now, given public backlash. But with protests targeting Park on the basis of her “irrational” behavior making her unfit for the presidency, rather than targeting her far right wing political policies, it may be that the politically conservative forces arrayed behind Park will survive the scandal and continue to carry out the same policies as Park. South Korea’s political future remains up in the air.