South Korean President Park Geun-hye has had four tough years in office, but nothing in that tenure prepared her for the scandal that has rocked her presidency in the last two weeks. A confidante of Park, Choi Soon-sil, is accused of being given access to state secrets and influencing state policy, as well as exploiting that relationship for personal benefit. The furor that erupted is not likely to topple Park, but it will create a vacuum at the apex of government in Seoul and may well render the president a lame duck.
Choi is an old friend of Park; the two women’s fathers were friends as well, with one U.S. embassy cable describing Choi senior, a pastor who devised his own religion that some consider a cult, as the “Korean Rasputin.” Park acknowledged in a newspaper interview nearly a decade ago that Choi was a source of emotional support after her parents died. Throughout Park’s political career, the younger Choi has been at her side, sometimes even traveling overseas with her. Since Park entered the Blue House, Choi was rumored to wield considerable power — there were charges that she received detailed “Presidential report packets” on an almost daily basis and held regular meetings on government-related topics — although there was never any proof to back up the allegations.
That proof was discovered late last month, when a small Seoul media outlet found a computer in Choi’s office that contained hundreds of sensitive documents, some related to national security. The trove included 44 speeches by Park, with file dates earlier than the date the address was given, and with changes in red that correspond to the speeches as delivered. In other words, the evidence appears to confirm that Choi saw and edited the president’s speeches before they were given and her changes were in the final version.
That evidence prompted the Blue House to end denials that Choi had any connection to the government and Park offered a public apology a day later, admitting that she sought help from Choi during her 2012 campaign and inauguration, but indicated that their relationship ended some time after that. That act of attrition did little to quell the public outrage that greeted the news. There have been nationwide demonstrations, with protesters calling for Park to resign. Her popularity ratings have dropped to a new low, sinking below 20 percent.
While news that Choi had access to government secrets has most inflamed public opinion, there are two other parts of the scandal. She is also accused of using her influence to extort significant sums of money from South Korean companies to support two nonprofit organizations that she then used for personal benefit, and she is charged with using connections to win advantages for her daughter, such as helping her get into a prestigious university and then getting special treatment once admitted. In a country that puts exceptional emphasis on education, Choi’s desire to work the system may be understandable, but her success generated more outrage. The charges against Choi were sufficient to force the resignation of the president of the university her daughter attends. Choi admitted receiving advance copies of Park’s speeches, but denies having access to other state secrets or benefiting from her connection to the president. She returned from Germany to submit to questioning by state prosecutors, who requested a warrant for her arrest on Wednesday.
The implications for Park are just becoming evident and they are worrying. Some of her top advisers have been forced to resign and parliamentary investigations will soon be launched. Even the president’s own political party has called for the resignation of top officials, with replacements selected by legislators, not the president. Park’s office said Wednesday the president has decided to replace the prime minister and two other Cabinet ministers, but it was not immediately clear if the replacements will get the parliament’s approval.
The turmoil is likely to delay the National Assembly’s consideration of the 2017 budget as well as other economic reform policies. As the South Korean economy sputters, these delays are ever more painful. Park’s call for constitutional reform that would allow a multiple-term presidency rather than a single five-year term is dead in the water.
Japan must worry that the furor will block conclusion of the long-sought General Security of Military Information Agreement that would facilitate information sharing between the two countries, a critical deal if Tokyo and Seoul are to effectively cooperate in dealing with the North Korean challenge. In addition, the prospects for a trilateral summit among Northeast Asian leaders, and a bilateral Japan-South Korea meeting have been reduced. Perhaps most worrying, the turmoil may well undermine public support for the agreement that the two governments reached over the “comfort women” issue almost a year ago.
The comfort women deal with Japan was always going to be a target as South Korea entered a campaign for the presidential election to be held at the end of next year. The scandal means that all of Park’s initiatives are more susceptible to criticism, and the temptation for outside powers, such as North Korea and China, to meddle in the campaign is increasing. Even more likely is Pyongyang’s readiness to exploit the vacuum in Seoul with provocations. Always dangerous, North Korean adventurism becomes even more troubling if the government in Seoul is paralyzed.
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