Barely a month after South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld Parliament’s impeachment vote, now ex-president Park Guen-hye has been formally charged by prosecutors, meaning she will stand trial for her alleged part in a far-reaching corruption scandal.
Park Guen-Hye faces prosecution on a number of counts, including abuse of power, coercion, bribery and the leaking of state secrets.
The corruption scandal centres around the dealings of Ms Park’s closest friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil (pictured below). It has encompassed a wide range of accusations, figures and organizations. Ms Park is now not only accused of complicity in pressuring organizations to donate to Ms Choi’s non-profit funds, but also of herself soliciting bribes from retail giant Lotte.
As well as Ms Park, several former presidential aides and Park’s friend Ms Choi, the Chairman of Lotte and Vice-Chairman of Samsung have been formally charged, leading to public debate about the healthiness of chaebols, family-led conglomerates that dominate South Korea’s business make-up, and their all-too often close relations with politicians.
Then there is the impact of the impeachment on South Korean politics – not only has the presidential election been fast-forwarded as a result, but the process itself led to a split in Ms Park’s Saenuri or Liberty Korea Party. It also provoked the formation of Bareun, or the Righteous Party, composed of deputies who broke away from Ms Park’s party when they felt unduly pressured to oppose Parliament’s impeachment vote.
Now, the latest twist has seen accusations swirling against the detention centre which held Ms Park during her three weeks of questioning before her formal charge. They have been forced to deny both favourable treatment, and that she slept the first two nights in a guard’s office whilst her allocated room was improved because she demanded new wallpaper for her cell.
Having represented the conservative Liberty Korean Party, Ms Park’s demise has been widely viewed as paving the way for an opposition-backed candidate to win the premature presidential election on 9 May.
Currently, Moon Jae-in (pictured below), a former leader of the Democratic Party who lost narrowly to Ms Park in the 2012 election, leads opinion polls by at least six percentage points ahead of his nearest rival. The Liberty Korean Party’s candidate, Hong Yun-pyo, languishes in a distant third, barely polling at more than 10% of the vote. The candidate of the breakaway Bareun Party is faring even worse.
North Korea’s state-controlled media have, naturally, exploited the plight of Ms Park in their continued propaganda indoctrination of the North Korean public. Ms Park had been the fiercest critic of North Korean nuclear developments, rendering the scandal’s eruption back in Autumn 2016 a gift from heaven for Kim Yong-un’s regime.
North Korean news outlets used it in the autumn to legitimize Kim Jong-un as the leader of the whole peninsula of Korea, while the insults and attacks on Ms Park have mounted up. The Korean Central News Agency accused her of turning South Korea into a ‘cesspool of irregularities and corruption’, while the Rodong Simmun newspaper branded Park’s government as the ‘most deformed, abnormal and stupid in contemporary history’. She has also been variously described as a ‘rabid dog’, ‘old witch’ and ‘prostitute’. Further underlining the identified propaganda importance, the North Korean regime reported news of Ms Park’s impeachment within two hours, noteworthy considering it took 11 days for Trump’s presidential election victory to be publicised.
Although it was the first time ever that a South Korean president had been impeached from office, it is not the first time that an ex-president has faced corruption charges. Two previous presidents have faced indictments on corruption charges and were convicted, while a third, Roh Moo-hyun, took his own life less than 6 months after leaving office in 2009 following prosecution interest in his family dealings leading to investigations into his own.
It remains to be seen whether Ms Park will be found guilty of the criminal charges now leveled against her. If she is convicted, Ms Park faces a sentence of a minimum of ten years to life based on the bribery charge alone.