South Korea’s political and business worlds have long been intertwined. The country has sought to create a “strong nation” that assumed a unity of interests between the two that blurred many distinctions between public and private sectors. This has meant that the government in Seoul has appealed to, and in some cases strong-armed, businesses to support government initiatives, usually with a promise of some future consideration. All countries experience some version of this; Japan’s own history is a case study in the integration and coordination of business and political interests. But, too often, the interest promoted is not the national interest but that of particular politicians.
The allegations that South Korean President Park Geun-hye used the powers of her office for personal gains of her corrupt confidante, Choi Soon-sil, drove hundreds of thousands of Koreans into the streets to demand her resignation or her impeachment. After insisting that she will fight the charges, Park announced Tuesday that she will bow to the will of the people and resign if demanded by parliament — which critics called a ploy by her to buy time and avert an imminent impeachment. That may fend off the immediate crisis, but it will not fill the leadership vacuum in Seoul nor will it end the system that led to her resignation.
Choi, a longtime friend of the president, is accused of being a power behind the presidency, pulling strings and steering the ship of state. Those allegations were confirmed when a discarded computer from Choi’s office was found with copies of national security documents and presidential speeches on it. Park twice apologized to the nation for the role afforded Choi and allowing her to interfere in government business. The allegations are embarrassing and will likely result in criminal charges against the individuals who provided Choi with government documents even though she lacked clearances.
Prosecutors are also investigating whether Choi pressed South Korea’s largest business conglomerates to donate tens of millions of dollars to foundations that she controlled, which she used for personal enrichment, to help her daughter get into university and to purse her career as an equestrian athlete, and to set Park up for life after the Blue House.
In recent weeks, prosecutors have raided some of South Korea’s largest businesses in search of evidence of influence-peddling related to licenses for the country’s duty-free business. SK Group, South Korea’s third-largest conglomerate, donated $9.5 million to Choi’s two foundations, while the Lotte Group, the fifth-largest business group, provided $3.8 million. In both cases, it is alleged that the payments were intended to facilitate approval of licenses, the renewals of which were denied in November.
Meanwhile, Samsung is alleged to have provided $3.1 million to a company co-owned by Choi and her daughter in exchange for pressing the National Pension Fund (NPS), a major shareholder, to approve the $8 billion merger of two Samsung Group affiliates last year. NPS was also raided last week, and the Ministry of Strategy and Finance and the Customs Service were likewise searched by prosecutors.
Choi’s lawyer denied the charges, saying she “only made recommendations for recruiting staff” at one of the foundations and denied involvement in managing the organizations. Park first pledged to work with prosecutors and an independent special prosecutor to be appointed by the National Assembly. She also dismissed the charges as “imagination and conjecture” and criticized the prosecutors for not being neutral.
The public was not convinced. Park’s approval rating has plummeted to 4 percent, an all-time low among South Korean presidents; it is zero among 20- to 30-year-olds. Millions of South Koreans have taken to the streets since the scandal broke, demanding that Park step down.
The prospect of impeachment has been growing. Such a motion requires a two-thirds vote of the 300-member National Assembly. The opposition controls 165 seats and more than 40 members of Park’s party are ready to join them. On Tuesday, Park bowed to the mounting pressure, saying that “I will abide to whatever arrangement the ruling and the opposition parties work out, including reducing my term,” and “I am ready to put all things down.”
Even if she does step down, the vacuum at the apex of South Korean politics will persist. No one wants to rush the presidential election scheduled for December 2017; party strategists want more time to prepare their favored candidates. Some canny observers think Park could be bluffing, hoping that the prospect of a premature ballot will force the opposition to leave her in office.
Yet even if she remains in office, Park will be too wounded to govern. That is especially dangerous given North Korea’s penchant for exploiting weakness in the South. Weakness also exposes all her policy initiatives to challenge. Last month, Japan and South Korea finally signed a long-delayed military intelligence sharing agreement. The deal has been a hot-button issue in the bilateral relationship even though Seoul has similar agreements with 33 other countries, the United States and Russia among them. It, along with the “comfort women” agreement signed last December, are likely to become targets of opportunistic politicians as the presidential campaign commences. South Korean presidential pretenders would be smarter to focus on the structural defects that encourage the mingling of personal and political interests, which is where this scandal began.