Why South Korea's president asked parliament to help her resign

South Korean president Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that she was willing to step down – and asked for parliament's guidance. For many, it's an effort to prolong her rule, even as she faces a corruption scandal and record levels of unpopularity.

Jeon Heon-Kyun/Reuters/File
South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks during an address to the nation, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, in November.

It may seem like South Korean President Park Geun-hye is trying to appease those calling for her resignation. But for opposition parties in South Korea, the president’s latest speech is just another effort to hold onto power.

President Park announced on Tuesday that she would be willing to step down – if parliament decided on the procedure. Her speech comes amid charges of corruption that have fueled street protests and impeachment efforts. 

The move has left some asking why Ms. Park did not simply resign. She indicated that her intention was to maintain stability during the leadership transition, but some see a more calculated effort to stay in power and avoid prosecution.

“She is asking parliament to pick a date for her to resign, which she knows would lead to a discussion on when to hold the presidential election and delay everything,” Park Kwang-on, a Democratic Party lawmaker, told Reuters.

The president has been at the center of a corruption scandal and criminal investigation. It emerged that Park had allowed a longtime family friend, Choi Soon-sil, to meddle in affairs of state, altering dozens of speeches before they were given. Ms Choi, the daughter of a cult leader who was a mentor of Park’s, is under arrest, accused of fraud and abuse of power. While running her two nonprofits, Choi reportedly played on her connection to the president to amass more than $70 million in donations from South Korean corporations, and took some of these funds for personal use.

Concerns about the extent of Choi’s influence over the president have sparked street protests and efforts to oust Park, who cannot be prosecuted while in office. Saturday marked the fifth weekend that South Koreans have rallied calling for her resignation: Police reports say 260,000 people joined the protest, while organizers estimated the figure could be as high as 1.5 million.

Park has resisted the calls for her resignation, even as her approval rating dropped to a record low 4 percent on Friday. In her speech, she suggested that asking parliament to decide what came next would prevent uncertainty about the future.

"I will step down from my position according to the law once a way is formed to pass on the administration in a stable manner that will also minimize political unrest and vacuum after ruling and opposition parties' discussion," she stated.

However, observers say that this move has only heightened ongoing political uncertainty.

"Many people will see this as Park's maneuver to buy time because she knows the conservative and progressive parties will have a tough time agreeing on anything," Duyeon Kim, a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, told NPR. It could take months to negotiate her exit.

The Minjoo Party, the largest opposition party, called it a "ploy to avoid impeachment," the Associated Press reported, and said that impeachment efforts would go forward. However, impeaching the president requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature, which means winning more than two dozen votes from Park’s Saenuri party, which supported her suggestion.

If Park resigns or is impeached, a new election must take place within 60 days. Given the short time frame to find new candidates, it may be in some of the parties’ interests to keep Park in power, at least temporarily, political analysts suggested.

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