South Korea’s Park Faces Existential Question of Survival

The spectacle of protesters against President Park Geun-hye in central Seoul merely carrying candles in paper cups may appear a peaceful protest, but they have a far greater chance of success than enraged crowds in other countries.

The crowds are calling for nothing less than Park’s resignation. She is targeted in one of the worst scandals in modern Korean history.

Is South Korea about to succumb to the demands of the parliament of the streets? How long can Park’s presidency survive while thousands fill the avenue around city hall plaza clamoring for her ouster? Not just the main opposition Minjoo or Democratic Party and smaller leftist groupings but also conservatives are saying her days in the Blue House, the presidential complex where she lives and works, are numbered.

For Koreans, the campaign against Park has totally undermined her ability to govern. Once resolute in her stand on North Korea, she has lost power over domestic and foreign policy in the face of a populist assault not seen in Seoul since the mass protests against Chun Doo-hwan in June 1987. Chun, the general who had taken over from Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, had to agree to a “democracy constitution” and elections for president every five years.

At meetings of Park Geun-hye’s aides and ministers, convened to consider the impact of the election of Donald Trump as US president, her views about whether he would do away with the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement or cut down the number of US troops in South Korea are almost irrelevant. Accustomed as they are to scandal, accusations of bribery, embezzlement, trials and convictions of leaders of business groups and government officials, Koreans are more obsessed and outraged by what they perceive as a long-term pattern of embarrassing if not disgraceful conduct.

At the heart of the scandal is Park’s relationship, going back four decades, with the woman who won her deepest confidence in shamanistic rituals reflecting ancient Korean spiritual and cultural traditions. How could their president have fallen for such nonsense – and how pervasive was the relationship?

The woman, Choi Sun-sil, is the daughter of a self-styled pastor named Choi Tae-min, who had inveigled his way into friendly ties with Park’s father, who ruled with an iron fist for 18 years and five months until his assassination by his intelligence chief in 1979. Choi Tae-min had befriended his daughter after the death of her mother five years earlier by a bullet intended for her father. The elder Choi, claiming to commune with her mother’s spirit, persuaded her to join in spiritual séances.

No doubt Park Geun-hye suffered terribly from the loss of her parents, but how deeply was she taken in by Choi Sun-sil, with whom she developed a sisterly relationship? Did Sun-sil, whose father died 22 years ago, induce Park to share state secrets after her election as president in 2012? And did Choi have a hand in policy decisions though she never had any official position– and should not have been privy to confidential documents?

These questions might not have arisen had not a tablet computer been discovered after an interview she had at JTBC, a cable TV station owned by the influential conservative newspaper, Joongang Ilbo. How the tablet got to JTBC remains a mystery – an enemy may have turned it over to a JTBC contact. The furor erupted after messages showed she was receiving drafts of the president’s speeches. Then came word that Choi had also embezzled funds from two foundations that she controlled.

Huge sums were found to have been transferred to Germany to buy a small hotel and two residences near Frankfurt and to support her daughter’s lessons in dressage at a nearby riding school. Choi is now in jail while prosecutors probe every aspect of her ties to Park, ranging from her influence over policy to Park's role in the foundations, to pressure on such prestigious companies as Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor to give lavish donations

The case is mesmerizing. It provides a glimmer of insight into corruption that surfaces regularly in Korea. Almost inevitably, when disaster occurs, investigators discover a pattern of bribery and influence-peddling, of misplaced loyalty and perjury. The investigation also raises disturbing questions about the infiltration of an illicit intruder into the highest circles of power – and the danger to policy-making, to national security, to rule by law.

Foes of the government now see their opportunity to regain power after nearly nine years of conservative rule. Park Geun-hye, elected to a single five-year term, cannot run again under the democracy constitution. Her enemies would like her to step down much sooner than the next regular election in December 2017. Under the constitution, the government would have to call a special election within 60 days.

It's difficult to know what is more compelling – the unraveling network of connections formed by Choi, with Park's blessing, that penetrated multiple layers of government and business or the protests on the avenue leading to the walled palace of ancient Korean kings and the Blue House beyond. Together, they form a combustible mixture that seems likely to explode in a tectonic shift from conservative to liberal leadership with broad implications for policy toward North Korea.