South Korea’s political morass

The scandal is a lesson for S Korea, which has maintained a close connection between political and corporate interests.

Protesters shout slogans after they are blocked by riot policemen in a road nearby the presidential Blue House during their march calling South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul
Protesters shout slogans after they are blocked by riot policemen in a road near the presidential Blue House during their march calling Park Geun-hye to step down [Reuters]

While the world is still fixated on the aftermath of the surprising election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, there is a political storm brewing in East Asia involving one of Washington’s most important allies – South Korea.

Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s embattled president, is just barely clinging on to office as her administration has come under intense criticism for its alleged collusion with a controversial outside adviser, Choi Soon-sil, who has been inappropriately close the leader. This has led many in South Korea to accuse the president of having a “shamanistic relationship” with a non-sanctioned consigliere.

The accusations against Park have grown over the past few weeks as the revelations of Choi’s dealings have gradually become more widely known.

Some of the main charges levied against Park – which she adamantly denies – are: providing Choi access to classified government materials and allowing her friend to meddle into the appointment of high-level officials and influence key policy decisions. Park even consulted with Choi before giving key presidential speeches, it was reported.

Adding to this toxic brew is the recent revelations that Choi may also have contorted her seemingly Rasputin-like bond with Park to secure lucrative donations from large Korean chaebol – or domestic conglomerates – to a couple of her foundations.

The involvement of key chaebol – such as Samsung and Hyundai – has deepened the roots of the political crisis and ushered calls in South Korea for a complete clean-up after decades of a corrupt political-business nexus in the country.

It has been alleged that Korean chaebol gave almost $65m in donations to Choi’s foundations to secure influence for their special interests in the Blue House.

The net has now fallen down on some of Korea’s most prestigious companies, with Samsung’s offices being raided earlier this month and calls for investigations into Hyundai.

South Korea has erupted in protest at the scandal and accused Park of corruption and breaching the trust of the nation.

Choi-gate has been amplified due to the digital age and has tarnished Seoul's reputation and brand overseas, especially as the crisis expands to envelope more high-profile Korean companies.


In recent weeks, protesters have poured into the streets of Seoul demanding the resignation of the tainted leader. Indeed, earlier this month, hundreds of thousands protesters gathered in the capital to call for Park’s dismissal.

Her public approval ratings have plummeted and are now functionally non-existent at 5 percent. The opposition parties have since mobilised and threatened to impeach Park, who has a remaining 15 months left in her term as president. Her formal rival and future presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-In, has even suggested: “She deserves to be arrested”.

Scenarios ahead

How will this drama continue to unfold in South Korea? Despite the strong calls from Korea’s opposition parties to remove Park, the ruling Saenuri Party appears to be doing little to excise her as a result of the scandal.

This clouds the possibility that Park would imminently resign due to public or political pressure. Park is surely concerned about the legal vulnerabilities that she would expose herself to if she left the Blue House voluntarily. As long as she remains president, she remains immune to prosecution on charges of corruption.

Perhaps the larger reason – at least for ruling party – is the lack of a suitable replacement to fill the void in the event of Park’s abrupt resignation.

In Park’s own party, she dismissed the Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn earlier this month in the midst of the scandal and has yet to have his replacement, Kim Byong-joon, formally confirmed to the role.

If Park were to resign, an election would be held within 60 days – an impossible timeframe to identify a suitable replacement candidate for the ruling party.

While the Saenuri Party may try to coax United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to serve as its next leader, there are no clear indications that the world’s top diplomat – soon to leave his post at the UN – is willing to enter the political fray at this fractured juncture.

Similarly, any drive to impeach Park would require two-thirds support from the Korean national assembly.

The opposition parties currently fall short of that mark and would require significant defections from the Saenuri Party to follow through on the impeachment threat.

OPINION: China’s failed South Korea embrace

Park has thus far avoided mass defections inside the party, but that could change if the crisis deepens and the ruling party feels it has run out of options.

The domestic scandal is a torturous lesson for South Korea, which has for years maintained an altogether too-close connection between political and corporate interests.

Choi-gate has also been amplified due to the digital age and has tarnished Seoul’s reputation overseas, especially as the crisis expands to envelope more high-profile Korean companies.

It will take a period of much-needed house cleaning and detoxification before South Korean politics can recover.

J Berkshire Miller is the director of the Council on International Policy and is a fellow on East Asia for the EastWest Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.