Political upheaval, mass protest, and an unpopular president facing a criminal investigation. No, not the US after the election of Donald Trump – but the very messy current situation in the public life of South Korea.
The government there has been led by President Park Geun-hye for the past four years. A leading member of the conservative Saenuri party, she also happens to be the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the head of the country’s Cold War military dictatorship.
In stark contrast to her father, Park is considered a rather demure figure, reliant on her aides to formulate and implement policy. But her government was suddenly thrown into a full-blown crisis that has brought about a total paralysis of her presidency.
In October 2016 files on a discarded laptop revealed that a friend of the president (who held no public office) had been given access to confidential policy documents and briefings, provided political advice, and edited her speeches. The friend and confidante in question was Choi Soon-sil, who also happens to be the daughter of another famous South Korean man – cult leader Choi Tae-min, founder of the Church of Eternal Life.
The revelation generated a huge wave of public revulsion against the 64-year-old president. Her public approval rating plummeted, there have been public demonstrations – one million people gathered on the streets of Seoul to demand her resignation – and she is facing a criminal investigation, all because of the company she keeps.
The fathers of both women were also closely linked. Choi Tae-min or “Pastor” Choi was known to have been influential with former president, Park Chung-hee. The latter’s assassin even claimed that Choi’s influence was one of the reasons he killed him.
As long time family friends, the current president developed a close relationship with Choi and his daughter. The suspicion held by many South Koreans after the laptop revelations is that their president was manipulated by Choi Soon-sil and that the cult had acquired control over their country.
The other suspicion is that Choi Soon-sil, 60, abused her relationship with President Park for personal gain. Choi’s daughter appears to have received favourable treatment to gain admission to the Ewha Women’s University despite insufficient grades. The president of the university has since resigned.
More importantly, it is alleged in the media that she used her links to President Park to obtain US$70m in donations from Korean industrial conglomerates for her two foundations, promoting Korean culture and sports.
It has also been suggested that substantial amounts went into Choi’s personal accounts and that her staff have been directly involved in the review of presidential policy documents.
The political shock generated by this affair has reverberated around the establishment. The lawmakers of the ruling party have been left reeling while the opposition continue to call for the resignation of the president.
What is particularly remarkable is the response of the South Korean people. Until this point Park had been viewed as a rather uninspiring but unusually clean politician. The scandal has shaken the nation to its core and has given rise to a complete collapse in trust for the highest political office.
President Park made a brief and rather contrite apology as the political storm clouds were gathering. And in order to stem the rising tide of demands for her resignation, she has replaced key government officials including the prime minister.
But so far there is no sign that these measures are sufficient to mitigate the scandal and the political establishment is openly unwilling to accept the government’s authority. This is creating a state of political paralysis without any obvious route of escape.
It is possible that the National Assembly will vote to impeach President Park, but there is no clearly established mechanism to put in place an interim president until the elections in 2017. There is a serious risk that the South Korean government will remain dysfunctional until then.
For the Republic of Korea this would be extremely damaging given the constant provocations from North Korea and the challenges facing the South Korean economy in the wake of the woes of Samsung.
Even since the transition to democracy, every South Korean president has left office leaving scandals in their wake. Kim Dae-jung was damaged in 2003 by the revelation that a very large sum of money was paid to North Korea in order to secure an historic summit, Roh Tae-woo went to prison for corruption in 1996, and Roh Moo-hyun killed himself in 2009 in order to escape an investigation of his family for receiving substantial illicit donations.
Park, however, is the first to face a major scandal while still in office.
For the Saenuri party, which considers itself the natural party of government in the Republic of Korea, this situation is a catastrophe. It has no plausible candidate for the forthcoming president elections and its only salvation might be if outgoing UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon were to run as a Saenuri candidate.
The fact that he has been absent from South Korean politics for so long and has such a high international reputation may enable him to garner support in the hope that he will somehow redeem the institution of the presidency. But for the foreseeable future there is little escape from the existential crisis that the South Korean political system has suddenly fallen into.