With her public support numbers in free-fall, South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Friday offered yet another apology for the political crisis engulfing her administration, adding that she would accept an investigation of her role in an alleged influence-peddling scandal “if necessary.”
“Anyone found by the current investigation to have done something wrong must be held responsible for what they have done, and I am also ready to face any responsibility,” Park was quoted as saying during a nationally televised news conference.
“If necessary, I’m determined to let prosecutors investigate me and accept an investigation by an independent counsel, too,” she said.
Park’s longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, 60, is alleged to have used her closeness to the president to meddle in state affairs, and her lawyer has said he expects prosecutors to look into whether she inappropriately received classified documents and benefited unlawfully from two nonprofit organizations.
The scandal has sent Park’s approval rating tumbling to an all-time low of 5 percent, a Gallup poll released Friday showed. The figure was the lowest since such tracking began in 1988.
While past presidents have been involved in scandals, no South Korean leader has ever been investigated while in office. But, as the country’s sitting leader, Park has immunity, per the South Korean Constitution, which says that the president “shall not be charged with a criminal offense during his tenure of office except for insurrection or treason.”
Nevertheless, any probe of Park will likely stoke further uncertainty that could adversely affect Seoul’s ties with its neighbors, experts say.
“There is surely some uneasy observation from Tokyo on the current situation in South Korea,” said J. Berkshire Miller, a Tokyo-based international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“While the Park government has not exactly been warm to Japan since taking office, there has been a recent detente, due to both the political agreement of the ‘comfort women’ (issue) in late 2015 and the sustained provocations from Pyongyang over the past year.”
Miller said that a trilateral summit slated for next month in Tokyo that also includes China was a good chance for the Japan and South Korea to further improve ties. Tokyo, however, is reportedly concerned that the crisis could delay or nix the summit, which was held last year for the first time since 2012.
Additionally, Miller said, there are concerns that Park’s re-engagement on a long-stalled deal that would allow Tokyo and Seoul to directly exchange intelligence on North Korea could lag amid the political uncertainty.
“The North will surely try and leverage this situation but may look to avoid immediate provocations — such as an imminent missile or nuclear test — in order to avoid giving Park an escape hatch to distract sentiment,” Miller said.
The news conference came as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited a military unit trained to wipe out those who hold important posts in South Korea’s presidential office, government and military, Pyongyang’s state media said Friday.
Park has faced growing calls from the public and her political opponents to resign, but no South Korean president has ever failed to finish their single, five-year term.
“This crisis could well end up in resignation which would be a somewhat more dignified end rather than an impeachment process,” said Miller.
Opposition lawmakers and presidential contenders have already stepped up their campaigns for Park to resign.
“The overwhelming sentiment of the public is for the president to step down,” former Minjoo Party leader Moon Jae-in was quoted as saying Wednesday by local media. “I am very aware of this sentiment and I support it.”
Moon has been among the front-runners to succeed Park, but has consistently trailed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in polls. Ban is widely expected to run for president with the backing of Park’s ruling Saenuri Party once his U.N. term expires at the year-end.
But Bong Young-shik, with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, said the political turmoil is unlikely to aid Moon’s candidacy.
“He has been virtually invisible, not demonstrating strong leadership to mobilize the public and the opposition parties or proposing emergency plans that are an acceptable bipartisan road map to lead the country out of the crisis,” Bong said.
Miller concurred, saying that Moon will face strong headwinds, regardless of whether Park stays or goes.
“Moon Jae-in will try and capitalize but will have to be careful not to run a smear campaign, which won’t endear him to the Korean people and would further hurt his chances against a candidate as strong as Ban Kin-moon,” he said.
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