by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 노동당 부산시당 – 노동당 부산시당/WikiCommons/CC
WITH DEMONSTRATIONS of over 200,000 in South Korea this week calling on President Park Geun-hye to step down, political reckoning would be at hand for the Park administration. Calls for Park to step down come after revelations that Park was revealing state secrets to “Rasputin-like” confidante Choi Soon-sil, who Park also allowed to embezzle money from the government. What is particularly bizarre about the unfolding scandal would be that Choi seemed to have a cult leader-like grip over Park, despite Park being the president of South Korea.
It is to be questioned whether Park’s Saenuri Party will be able to survive the scandal, with allegations that the party conducted occult rituals in line with Park’s obedience to Choi or has otherwise come under Choi’s sway. With the present scandal being leveraged on by the political opposition, the Saenuri Party looks set to take a beating in next year’s presidential elections. Two past presidential aides of Park’s have been arrested, though Park had previously dismissed all presidential aides as a way of attempting to contain the scandal.
Under Park’s rule, South Korea saw a period of government harkening back to authoritarianism, with increasing restrictions on press freedoms, police crackdowns on political dissent, and attempts to whitewash South Korea’s authoritarian period in high school textbooks. Park herself would be a legacy of the authoritarian period, as the daughter of assassinated former dictator Park Chung-hee, and it is unsurprising that the right-wing forces which aligned behind her father would also align under her.
Nevertheless, the Park administration also saw massive protest, with students demonstrating against planned textbook changes, and labor groups demonstrating planned economic reforms which would put an end to South Korea’s system of lifetime employment. Demonstrations in November 2015 saw 60,000 to 130,000 participants. Seeing as in other parts of Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan has seen student demonstrations against revisionist high school textbooks in Taiwan and Japan has also seen labor demonstrations against corporations seeking to put an an end to Japan’s system of lifetime employment, protest in South Korea conforms with broader regional trends of protest in East Asia. Other labor demonstrations which occurred during the Park presidency include strikes by Hyundai employees and public sector workers, and public outrage over the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping, which stands to disrupt not only the South Korean, but the global economy.
The rise of Park is reflective of the recent trend in East Asia of right-wing political actors with ties to former authoritarian regimes coming to power. This can also be seen with 2008 election of Ma Ying-Jeou as president of Taiwan and the return to power of Shinzo Abe as prime minister of Japan in 2012. Park, Abe, and Ma alike are individuals whose entrance into politics came as a result of their families’ political ties. Apart from Park being the daughter of a dead dictator, Ma hails from a family of high-ranking KMT officials and Abe is the latest scion of a political dynasty whose influence in Japanese politics goes back to the Japanese empire. Unsurprisingly, with such a background, Ma, Abe, and Park attempted to whitewash past historical crimes of their governments, and the political administration of all three saw crackdowns on press freedoms in their respective countries. With the exception of Ma, who sought to bring Taiwan closer to China, Abe and Park were also known for taking a stronger line against China than previous political administrations.
However, for there to be a space for left-wing politics in South Korea may require further action. What brought down Park was ultimately a scandal that was not directly related to her far right-wing policies. The current scandal returns to the history of authoritarianism, seeing as the reason why Choi could come to have such an odd hold on Park is because he father was one of Park Chung-hee’s confidantes. Nevertheless, protests call for Park to step down not because of her far right-wing political policies or resurgent authoritarianism but because of the bizarre fact that the president of a country has come under the sway of an individual who seems to be something like a cult leader.
And who will fill the power vacuum after Park either steps down or her term ends is to be questioned. Apart from that the scandal likely means that the current opposition comes to power during the next set of elections, China and its sometimes proxy North Korea have been among those to use the current scandal as leverage against South Korea, particularly with the hope that the political crisis will lead to backlash against the deployment of the THAAD missile system as a questionable decision made under the questionable leadership of Park.
China and North Korea see the deployment of THAAD in South Korea by US army as a possible threat to their regional interests, although the deployment of THAAD was also opposed by some in South Korea because of threats to citizen safety and environmental damage, as an extension of American imperialism, or something which would lead to more threats to South Korea than it would be worth because of the ire it would provoke from China. As such, Park’s unilateral support for the THAAD was a matter of controversy in South Korea. The US maintains a number of bases in South Korea and control of the South Korean military reverts to America in wartime, which has been no small matter of controversy within the country because of incidents caused by American servicemen in the past and the subordination of South Korean sovereignty to the American government.
South Korea’s political future, not only internally, but regionally remains unknown. We will see as to the future unfolding of this scandal, then.