Korean President Park Geun-hye is mired in another scandal, adding to a list of controversies since her election in December 2012. An investigation by media giant JTBC uncovered evidence that the president had been consulting a longtime family friend by the name of Choi Sun-sil on affairs of state. Choi is the daughter of Choi Tae-min — the leader of the “Eternal Life Church,” which mixes Buddhist and shamanistic beliefs with Christian trappings — who was a close advisor to Park’s father, late dictator Park Chung-hee.
The Chois’ religious beliefs and Park’s relationship with the family is no secret; the Choi-Park connection was noted by the U.S. Embassy in Korea and Korean media years ago. But controversy flared after it was discovered that the younger Choi, who has no security clearance, may have been advising the president on a host of issues, from presidential appointments to public policy. Choi allegedly used her presidential connection to pressure for millions of dollars in “donations” from large corporations for two non-profit foundations that she runs, which she then reportedly embezzled. If that wasn’t enough, Choi is also accused of peddling her influence to secure her daughter a spot at the prestigious Ewha Womans University; this accusation resulted in the president of the university’s resignation.
Coverage of the scandal is converging on the bizarre or the “irrational” nature of Choi’s network. Rumors are claiming that Choi’s fingerprints were all over Park’s administration, from the “shamanistic” decorations supposedly used at her inauguration to the name of her political party, allegedly copied from cult language. But while the investigation may overturn some odd creatures underneath the stone of Park’s battered administration, right now Park’s future boils down to one simple factor: politics.
South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, has a presidential system of government with a unicameral legislative body. The president, who is directly elected for one five-year term, exercises substantial authority over politics and affairs of state as chief executive, chairman of the presidential cabinet, head of state, and commander in chief of the armed forces. There is also a prime minister, appointed by the president and confirmed by the National Assembly, who serves a role similar to a vice president. Aside from assisting the president in managing the cabinet, the prime minister is the first person to take over as head of state should the president be unable to carry out their presidential duties — in the event of impeachment, for instance.
It’s not yet clear if it will come to that. In her most recent address to the nation, Park apologized for causing “public distress.” It was an ambiguous apology for an ambiguous relationship, and it’s still unclear the exact nature of the Park-Choi relationship and how much influence Choi really had on affairs of state. But the scandal is already claiming scalps. Park has accepted the resignation of her top aides and is reported to be taking suggestions on how to best reorganize her cabinet. Meanwhile, the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office has launched an investigation. An independent and bipartisan council setup by the ruling Saenuri and opposition Minjoo parties will eventually take over, assuming the two can agree on the terms of the council; they are currently in disagreement. After leaving the country for Germany, Choi returned to Korea on Sunday and has since appeared in front of a veritable media mob to offer an apology for an “unpardonable crime.” She is currently being held under emergency detention.
On Saturday, a candlelit rally at Gwanghwamun Square, within sight of the Blue House, the presidential residence, drew upwards of 20,000 people. Protestors who attended the rally were clear what they wanted: a resignation. Who the protestors are and whose interest in society they represent aren’t clear, but there appears to be modest support from the general public for their demand that Park resign and a snap election be held. Among respondents from an Oct. 31 poll, 38 percent favor Park Geun-hye resigning.
The Justice Party, one of the smaller opposition parties, has already articulated demands. But the main opposition party, the center-left Minjoo Party, is treading carefully. They’re not likely to call for impeachment or Park’s resignation from government. The opposition does not want to trigger a snap parliamentary election because it is not guaranteed to win. Despite electoral success in the National Assembly elections earlier this year, the opposition parties have had a hard time fielding viable candidates or maintaining party discipline.
It is also not a forgone conclusion that an impeachment effort would succeed. Although some members of Park’s own Saenuri Party have indicated they might turn on the president, initiating impeachment would require a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Even with Park’s approval numbers hitting rock bottom, there is still support, however begrudging, within Saenuri. And right now, the accusations about Park’s relationship with Choi are just that; it’s still unclear if the extent of wrongdoing is sufficient to justify removal from office. This might change as the investigation wears on, but uncertainty prevails at the moment.
Impeachment is also a gamble. Late President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached in 2003 for violating election laws by voicing support for his political party during assembly elections, but the Constitutional Court, which is the independent judicial body responsible for adjudicating impeachment cases, dismissed the case. The ruling backfired against those who had sought to remove Roh in his first year of power The conservatives, who voted for impeachment with disenchanted liberals, lost big at the ballot box due to a groundswell of support for the president and his Uri Party; Roh’s party tripled its seats in the Assembly in the election following the court’s decision. This may be different; Park is late in her five-year term, and the charges may be far worse. But the effect could be similar and with the election just over a year out, the opposition is not likely to risk it.
More intriguing is the power struggle within the ruling Saenuri Party. Despite Park’s longtime relationship with the conservative party, there is an influential anti-Park faction. This group, which stands at about 40 out of 129 party members, is at loggerheads with the pro-Park faction over what should be done. The pro-Park faction support a wait-and-see approach, arguing that they need to get to the bottom of the situation first. The anti-Park faction, meanwhile, is demanding Park’s resignation from the party and the formation of a coalition cabinet.
Amid the political disagreements and general brouhaha, a rough consensus is taking shape. As an alternative to impeachment, the possibility of delegating political authority to a “responsible prime minister” (RPM) appointed by ruling and opposition parties has been motioned. Originally tabled by the main opposition Minjoo Party, there is agreement within the Saenuri Party that this is probably the best course of action. Conservative politician Ha Tae-kyung, who supports the idea, says it would mean Park taking on a role similar to that of Germany’s president. Park would maintain her position as head of state, but her role would be largely symbolic. She would, in other words, effectively relinquish her presidential powers, although there are no clear terms just yet. According to media reports, leading candidates for the RPM position are Kim Jong-in and Sohn Hak-kyu, both Minjoo Party legislators.
While reasonable, the opposition may have good reason to stall the negotiations with Saenuri regarding the conditions of a RPM and the appointment of a coalition cabinet. Politically, the opposition has the most to lose from participating in government. Criticism comes cheap; governing is more difficult, with the chance of political backlash if the situation is handled poorly.
Of course, it’s possible that nothing changes, and things muddle along to an inglorious end when a new president is elected on Dec. 20, 2017. Much depends on the outcome of the ongoing investigation and other developments, namely the public’s reaction. As things stand, it is unlikely that the coalition of opposition party members and anti-Park conservatives can agree on a call for impeachment. And those protesting in the streets aren’t likely to force the government’s hand. The approximately 20,000 who turned out Saturday to demand Park’s resignation is a relatively small number by recent standards. By comparison, approximately 70,000 people attended a labor protest in November last year, and more than 40,000 protested the government’s response to the Sewol ferry disaster. Relative lack of public outcry could change, of course. Large-scale protests to demand Park Geun-hye’s resignation are scheduled for the rest of this week.
Despite an unimpressive presidency to date, Park previously enjoyed a reasonable base of support among conservatives segments of society and actually gained broader support over the course of a rocky 2015. Until the recent scandal broke, Gallup Korea data showed Park with a 32 percent approval rating overall and a 59 percent approval rating among Koreans age 60 and older, the most conservative demographic cohort. But since the president’s apology, the bottom has dropped out; Gallup data show an approval rating of 14 percent, with the aforementioned Oct. 31 poll putting her overall approval rating at 10.4 percent and support from the 60-plus age cohort below 20 percent.
A sub-20 approval rating is abysmal, to be sure. But a cursory glance at former presidents approaching similar points in their five-year tenures suggests there is nothing particularly unique about Park Geun-hye’s status. The bottoms have dropped out for Park’s predecessors, too, as Leiden University researcher Christopher Green notes. Comparing Park’s (un)popularity with her five presidential predecessors, Green points out that “of the five presidents prior to Park Geun-hye, four have ended up leaving or being kicked out of their respective political parties.” Even if she voluntarily left or was voted out of the ruling party, that would be par for the course, not exceptional. Lame duck status hits hard in the Korean system.
The big takeaway is this: The fight for the next presidential election has already begun. Both sides are more concerned with the future elections than with Park’s past connections – even if the Korean public may not feel the same way.
Photo credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images