Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have staged protests demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye in recent weeks, in an escalating corruption scandal that has deeply eroded their trust in one of Asia’s most successful democracies and a key US ally.
The crisis, which is dramatic even by South Korean political standards, centers on revelations that Ms. Park let Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend, meddle in state affairs without the knowledge of the public or any accountability. While corruption scandals have tainted earlier presidencies, the depth of Ms. Choi’s influence has forced many protesters to confront uncomfortable questions about the state of their young democracy, with current checks and balances on the powerful presidency appearing weaker than ever.
Se-Woong Koo, a Seoul-based political commentator, says the scandal has shown how opaque South Korean politics remains, given that politicians and corporations were aware of Choi’s influence well before the scandal erupted in October.
“It’s not just about Park or Choi. It’s about all of South Korea,” he says. “It’s about how the political and corporate establishments have been operating to undermine the democratic process and achieve their own private interests. We need to look at the nature of the presidency itself.”
Park is to be questioned by prosecutors this week, while Choi is currently under arrest for fraud and abuse of power. She stands accused of using her ties to Park to enrich herself by extorting donations from major corporations, such as Samsung.
The drama has been further fueled by details about the pair’s decades-old connection. Choi is the daughter of a late cult leader who was rumored to exert “complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result,” according to a WikiLeaks cable from the US embassy in Seoul. Now, new allegations abound of Choi wielding a similar influence over everything from presidential speeches to matters of national security.
Park, whose approval ratings have plunged to 5 percent, has responded by dismissing presidential aides, suggesting constitutional reforms, and apologizing for putting “too much faith in a personal relationship.” But she has been unable to stem the wave of outrage, with many South Koreans calling for her ouster and caricaturing her as a puppet.
“We did not give power to Park Geun-hye to become Choi Soon-sil’s doll,” says Christine Kim, a 26-year-old graduate, who was joining her second-ever political rally in central Seoul. “She’s crushed our democratic principles; that’s why we feel disappointed. We thought we were living in a democratic country.”
A remarkable transition
South Korea began its remarkable transition from a military dictatorship into a liberal, high-income democracy only three decades ago. Together with Japan, it is one of the US’s closest allies in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes, at a time when outgoing President Obama’s policy of pivoting toward Asia looks increasingly uncertain.
But domestically, the South Korean presidency has long come under criticism for vesting too much power in the office without adequate oversight. While the post is limited to a single five-year term, analysts say it lacks the checks that could root out wrong-doing. Indeed, both South Korea and Japan were relegated to “flawed democracy” status for 2015 by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which said that a “lack of accountability of incumbent governments, owing to the weakness of the opposition,” was undermining the quality of democracy in East Asia.
The Washington-based advocacy group Freedom House also marked South Korea down in 2015, citing increased intimidation of political opponents and crackdowns on public criticism of Park after the 2014 Sewol ferry accident, a maritime disaster that killed 304 people, mostly high-school students.
Disappointment vs. explosions of anger
Presidents before Park have ended their tenures in disgrace, often involving their offspring. Unmarried, without any children, and estranged from her siblings, Park had appeared an exception.
An official close to the president, who did not wish to be named, expressed “disappointment” at the revelations about Choi’s influence, claiming “no one had any idea”. But he also cautioned against viewing every decision Park had made through the lens of the scandal as her opponents in a “deeply polarized” society were now doing, suggesting that protesters were galvanized by such groups as trade unions.
But at the Seoul headquarters of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an NGO that monitors state abuses of power, Park Kunyong, the group’s secretary-general, says the protests were an “explosion of piled-up anger.”
He pointed to the diverse crowd of demonstrators, including young families and high school students, uniting after a string of recent government moves that went against popular opinion. Among them, he says, was imposition of a state-authored history textbook that whitewashes truths about South Korea’s past, including the darker legacies of Park’s controversial father Park Chung-hee, a former president and military dictator who was assassinated in 1979.
“It’s an explosion of our urge for democracy for so long,” says Mr. Park, adding that the last time protesters came out in such force was during the 1987 pro-democracy rallies that paved the way for the end of military rule.
Politicians across the political spectrum are now scurrying to hold crisis talks.
“The party is like a snake malting its skin, trying to get rid of Park. It follows previous patterns of parties trying to shed an unpopular leader” before elections, says John Delury, an associate professor at Yonsei University’s School of International Studies in Seoul.
Park’s term ends next year, but some opposition voices are demanding early polls. They remain optimistic about the nation’s future, seeing the protests as a mass call for greater transparency and a chance to trigger progressive reforms.
“The realization the country belongs to the people is a great opportunity for the democratic movement,” says Han Chang-min, a Justice Party spokesman.