South Korea appears to be witnessing the tail end of President Park Geun-hye’s personalised presidential power. Over the past few weeks the nation has been transfixed by a series of revelations over the influence Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, has exercised over presidential decision-making, from speeches to various state affairs, despite holding no official government position. Hundreds of thousands of angry protesters have taken to the streets to demand her resignation or impeachment, but Park appears determined to stay in office until the end of her single five-year term in February 2018.
Responding to public pressure, Park has sacked her chief of staff and five closest aides. She has also reached across political boundaries to appoint several influential individuals from previous administrations. New appointments include Choi Jai-kyeong, former president Lee Myung-bak’s so-called ‘political prosecutor’, who replaces Park’s previous right-hand prosecutor, Woo Byung-woo. Beyond these extraordinary gestures, Park has even promised that she would accept a prosecutorial investigation into to the Choi scandal. In the meantime, her approval rating has nose-dived to a record low 5 per cent.
What makes this corruption scandal so different from those involving Park’s predecessors is that Park fundamentally mismanaged her ‘divine rights’ as president. Her delegation of presidential authority to her non-elected confidante amounts to ‘a destruction of the Constitution’, accuses Yoo Seung-min, a former floor leader of the ruling Saenuri Party in the National Assembly. This view reflects the core objection of South Korean protesters demanding Park’s immediate resignation or impeachment. To them, Park has completely lost any political, legal and moral legitimacy.
As the daughter of the late president Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye’s rise to president just fourteen years after first entering politics in 1998 was itself possible thanks to South Korean conservatives. To the conservative elite in the Saenuri Party, the media and family-owned chaebol conglomerates, Park had an unbeatable asset. With an almost cult-like nostalgia for the authoritarian former president, approximately 33 per cent of the country’s mostly older voters supported the younger Park almost blindly, in expectation of a second coming of the economic miracle under her father. Park’s rise to president was the surest investment for these elites to maintain their own vested interests.
Park has so far got away with a personalised governing system — so-called ‘notebook politics’ — through which she has made obscure policy-making instructions and choices for senior appointments based on her own notepad. In this process, Park reduced the executive roles of her own cabinet ministers and the ruling Saenuri lawmakers to mere rubber-stamping.
Yet she has been fiercely protected by the conservative power elite, especially the so-called ‘pro-Park’ politicians and their media–chaebol alliance. They not only acquiesced to Park’s personalised political power, but also covertly relied on Choi’s so-called ‘shamanistic guidance’ and willingly collaborated with the Park–Choi arrangement.
Recently discovered digital documents show that conservative elites and opposition politicians knew as early as 2007 — if not earlier — of Park’s relationship with Choi and Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, a shamanistic pseudo-religious cult leader that Park met in the 1970s. It was also no secret that Choi’s ex-husband, Jeong Yun-hoe, was one of Park’s longest-serving aides until 2004. In November 2014, prosecutors glossed over allegations that Jeong had continued to meddle in state affairs since resigning from public life. By then, Park’s mysterious four-decade relationship with the Choi family was a relatively well known gossip topic among politicians, social commentators, the media and business community.
But none of them did anything to block Park’s personalised political power until now. The Saenuri Party, especially the pro-Park faction, defended Park while building their own personal power. In terms of the political-economic alliance, the chaebol have been active in providing donations to foundations allegedly set up by Choi. Some of South Korea’s biggest corporations, including Samsung, Hyundai Motors and Lotte, contributed up to 80 billion won (US$70 million) to two foundations, Mir and K-sports, controlled by Choi.
How then has Park only now been exposed in such an explosive manner?
First, Park was publicly exposed and discredited by one of her main elite backers: the conservative media. JTBC, the TV channel of the Samsung-linked JoongAng Media Network (which also owns the conservative JoongAng Ilbo newspaper), was the first to expose the Park–Choi Gate scandal. Reporting with a heavy emphasis on moral rectitude, JTBC, along with other leading newspapers and media organisations, avoided public scrutiny of their own role in Park’s personalised politics. They also appear to have helped the chaebol, especially Samsung, by deflecting public anger and condemnation away from its role in the scandal.
Second, for the Saenuri Party, the devastating result of the April general elections seems to have convinced it to desert Park by laying responsibility on her. The Party may even change its structure with a new name — as it has done before — especially in preparation for the 2017 presidential election.
No president has been free of scandal since South Korea was democratised in 1987. One former president, Roh Moo-hyun, was even driven to suicide amid a probe into corruption allegations surrounding himself and his family. In spite of this political and social chaos, Park–Choi Gate could become a tipping point for real change if South Korean politicians and voters seriously reflect on their country’s record of presidential scandals and learn from their mistakes.
Hyung-A Kim is Associate Professor at the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.