“Should I Stay Or Should I Go”: a popular rock song from 1980s band The Clash, and the dilemma South Korea’s President Park Guen-hye has faced for over a month now, as corruption allegations centred on her personal confidante and closest friend have enmired her presidency.
On 29th November, Ms. Park unexpectedly announced that she was prepared to stand down once the South Korean Parliament had put in place measures to prevent a political vacuum after her resignation.
She may be pushed before she jumps, however. This Friday, the parliament will vote on whether to impeach her on charges of abuse of power. Unless she formally resigns before then, enough of her own party’s MPs could support the motion to give it the two-thirds majority required. If that is the case, the matter is then referred to South Korea’s constitutional court, where 6 of the 9 constitutional judges must approve the motion for her to be removed from office.
The figure at the centre of these allegations is Choi Soon-sil. Her father, Choi Tae-min, was a founder of a religious cult, and the confidante of President Park Chung-hee, Ms Park’s father. Park Chung-hee is viewed as laying the foundations for modern day South Korea when he transformed his brutal, militarist dictatorship into a modern democracy during his time in power (1961-1979).
When her mother was assassinated in 1974 by a North Korean spy, Ms Park returned from studies in Europe to become the effective First Lady. It is thought that from this point she became close friends with Choi Soon-sil as well as being mentored by her father, Choi Tae-min, who some claim garnered influence over her by asserting that he received a message in his dreams from Ms Park’s mother.
Choi stands accused of using her connection to the President to apply pressure on business to donate to a non-profit fund she controlled, to the tune of in excess of £48 million, and has now been formally charged on a number of counts, including attempted coercion and attempted fraud.
Allegations have also surfaced over her access to confidential content from the president’s office, and the revelation, now confirmed by Ms Park, that she has reviewed and edited the President’s speeches. Prosecutors now suspect President Park has personally been involved in pressuring businesses to donate, and further accusations surfaced that religious, cult rituals took place in the Blue House, the South Korean president’s official residence.
When first questioned in October, Choi Soon-sil said she had committed an ‘unpardonable crime’, although her lawyer states this is not an admission of guilt. President Park has gradually progressed in her statements from unspecific apologies and admittance of having put ‘too much faith in a personal relationship’, to expressing confessions of naivety and ill-judgement. To try to mollify the storm of criticism directed at her, she replaced key members of the government, including the prime minister. Ms Park also indicated her willingness to cooperate with investigations and as of 29 November, is ‘willing to resign’. She has vehemently denied, however, the accusation of allowing cult rituals to take place in the presidential palace.
Since the outbreak of the scandal peaceful protests have taken place in the capital, Seoul, demanding Ms Park’s resignation, which have spread beyond the capital and swelled in number. The police believe 270,000 people attended last weekend’s rally in Presidential Square, Seoul. Park’s overall presidential approval rating now stands at 4% and at 0% among the 19-39 year age group. Opposition parties have urged her to “honourably” resign before impeachment.
Two presidential aides and K-pop video director Cha Eun-tek, who has worked with Gangnam Style star Psy, have also been charged in relation to elements of the scandal. The offices of technology giant Samsung were raided to investigate allegations that they may have provided funds to a company co-owned by Ms Choi and her daughter, used to bankroll the daughter’s equestrian training in Germany. In a separate raid of presidential offices, a notably large supply of viagra was discovered, although the president’s office states this was acquired to combat altitude sickness on recent official visits to East Africa.
This scandal seems merely another chapter in South Korea’s history of high-level political corruption, with the three presidents prior to Ms Park also at least indirectly linked to damaging corruption scandals. Perhaps the protests indicate, however, that public acceptance of corruption is no longer the case and as such, symbolizes that democracy in South Korea is now entrenched.
Being a President’s daughter has made it easier for the public to view Ms Park as out of touch and more concerned with the fortunes of her friends. The snowballing of the peaceful protests in South Korea could therefore reflect a wider world trend of a backlash against so-called political dynasties.
No longer are the masses inclined to support sons, daughters and relations of previous political leaders, due to the perception of their carrying their forefathers’ political baggage and being elitist, or part of ‘the establishment’. This trend at least partly explains Hillary Clinton’s failure in the US Presidential Election. Then again, the current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau contradicts this.
As for Ms Park, her days in office are now numbered.