Is this the be­gin­ning of Park Geun-hye’s fall?

The Myanmar Times - - News - HYUNG-A KIM news­room@mm­

SOUTH Korea ap­pears to be wit­ness­ing the tail end of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye’s per­son­alised pres­i­den­tial power. Over the past few weeks the na­tion has been trans­fixed by a se­ries of rev­e­la­tions over the in­flu­ence Ms Park’s friend, Choi Soon-sil, has ex­er­cised over pres­i­den­tial de­ci­sion­mak­ing, from speeches to var­i­ous state af­fairs, de­spite hold­ing no of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment po­si­tion. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of an­gry pro­test­ers have taken to the streets to de­mand her res­ig­na­tion or im­peach­ment, but Ms Park ap­pears de­ter­mined to stay in of­fice un­til the end of her sin­gle fiveyear term in Fe­bru­ary 2018.

Re­spond­ing to pub­lic pres­sure, Ms Park has sacked her chief of staff and five clos­est aides. She has also reached across po­lit­i­cal bound­aries to ap­point sev­eral in­flu­en­tial in­di­vid­u­als from pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions. New ap­point­ments in­clude Choi Jai-kyeong, for­mer pres­i­dent Lee Myung-bak’s so-called “po­lit­i­cal pros­e­cu­tor”, who re­places Ms Park’s pre­vi­ous right-hand pros­e­cu­tor, Woo Byung-woo. Beyond these ex­tra­or­di­nary ges­tures, Ms Park has even promised that she would ac­cept a pros­e­cu­to­rial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Choi scan­dal. In the mean­time, her ap­proval rat­ing has nose-dived to a record low 5 per­cent.

What makes this cor­rup­tion scan­dal so dif­fer­ent from those in­volv­ing Ms Park’s pre­de­ces­sors is that Ms Park fun­da­men­tally mis­man­aged her “divine rights” as pres­i­dent. Her del­e­ga­tion of pres­i­den­tial au­thor­ity to her non-elected con­fi­dante amounts to “a destruc­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion”, ac­cuses Yoo Se­ung-min, a for­mer floor leader of the rul­ing Saenuri Party in the Na­tional Assem­bly. This view re­flects the core ob­jec­tion of South Korean pro­test­ers de­mand­ing Ms Park’s im­me­di­ate res­ig­na­tion or im­peach­ment. To them, Ms Park has com­pletely lost any po­lit­i­cal, le­gal or moral le­git­i­macy.

As the daugh­ter of the late pres­i­dent Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye’s rise to pres­i­dent just 14 years af­ter first en­ter­ing pol­i­tics in 1998 was it­self pos­si­ble thanks to South Korean con­ser­va­tives. To the con­ser­va­tive elite in the Saenuri Party, the me­dia and fam­ily-owned chae­bol con­glom­er­ates, Ms Park had an un­beat­able as­set. With an al­most cult-like nos­tal­gia for the au­thor­i­tar­ian for­mer pres­i­dent, ap­prox­i­mately 33pc of the coun­try’s mostly older vot­ers sup­ported the younger Ms Park al­most blindly, in ex­pec­ta­tion of a sec­ond com­ing of the eco­nomic mir­a­cle un­der her fa­ther. Ms Park’s rise to pres­i­dent was the surest in­vest­ment for these elites to main­tain their own vested in­ter­ests.

Ms Park has so far got away with a per­son­alised gov­ern­ing sys­tem – so-called “note­book pol­i­tics” – through which she has made ob­scure pol­i­cy­mak­ing in­struc­tions and choices for se­nior ap­point­ments based on her own notepad. In this process, Ms Park re­duced the executive roles of her own cabi­net min­is­ters and the rul­ing Saenuri law­mak­ers to mere rub­ber-stamp­ing.

Yet she has been fiercely pro­tected by the con­ser­va­tive power elite, es­pe­cially the so-called “pro-Park” politi­cians and their me­dia-chae­bol al­liance. They not only ac­qui­esced to Ms Park’s per­son­alised po­lit­i­cal power, but also covertly re­lied on Ms Choi’s so-called “shaman­is­tic guid­ance” and will­ingly col­lab­o­rated with the Park-Choi ar­range­ment.

Re­cently dis­cov­ered dig­i­tal doc­u­ments show that con­ser­va­tive elites and op­po­si­tion politi­cians knew as early as 2007 – if not ear­lier – of Ms Park’s re­la­tion­ship with Ms Choi and Ms Choi’s fa­ther, Choi Tae-min, a shaman­is­tic pseudo-re­li­gious cult leader that Ms Park met in the 1970s. It was also no se­cret that Ms Choi’s ex­hus­band, Jeong Yun-hoe, was one of Ms Park’s long­est-serv­ing aides un­til 2004. In Novem­ber 2014, pros­e­cu­tors glossed over al­le­ga­tions that Mr Jeong had con­tin­ued to med­dle in state af­fairs since re­sign­ing from pub­lic life. By then, Ms Park’s mys­te­ri­ous four­decade re­la­tion­ship with the Choi fam­ily was a rel­a­tively well-known gossip topic among politi­cians, so­cial com­men­ta­tors, the me­dia and the busi­ness com­mu­nity.

But none of them did any­thing to block Ms Park’s per­son­alised po­lit­i­cal power un­til now. The Saenuri Party, es­pe­cially the pro-Park fac­tion, de­fended Ms Park while build­ing their own per­sonal power. In terms of the po­lit­i­cal-eco­nomic al­liance, the chae­bol have been ac­tive in pro­vid­ing do­na­tions to foun­da­tions al­legedly set up by Ms Choi. Some of South Korea’s biggest cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing Sam­sung, Hyundai Mo­tors and Lotte, contributed up to 80 bil­lion won (US$70 mil­lion) to two foun­da­tions, Mir and K-sports, con­trolled by Ms Choi.

How then has Ms Park only now been ex­posed in such an ex­plo­sive man­ner?

First, Ms Park was pub­licly ex­posed and dis­cred­ited by one of her main elite back­ers: the con­ser­va­tive me­dia. JTBC, the TV chan­nel of the Sam­sung-linked JoongAng Me­dia Net­work – which also owns the con­ser­va­tive JoongAng Ilbo news­pa­per – was the first to ex­pose the Park-Choi scan­dal. Re­port­ing with a heavy em­pha­sis on moral rec­ti­tude, JTBC, along with other lead­ing news­pa­pers and me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, avoided pub­lic scru­tiny of their own role in Ms Park’s per­son­alised pol­i­tics. They also ap­pear to have helped the chae­bol, es­pe­cially Sam­sung, by de­flect­ing pub­lic anger and con­dem­na­tion away from its role in the scan­dal.

Sec­ond, for the Saenuri Party, the dev­as­tat­ing re­sult of the April gen­eral elec­tion seems to have con­vinced it to desert Ms Park by lay­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity on her. The party may even change its struc­ture with a new name – as it has done be­fore – es­pe­cially in prepa­ra­tion for the 2017 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

No pres­i­dent has been free of scan­dal since South Korea was democra­tised in 1987. One for­mer pres­i­dent, Roh Moo-hyun, was even driven to sui­cide amid a probe into cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions sur­round­ing him­self and his fam­ily. In spite of this po­lit­i­cal and so­cial chaos, “Park-Choi-gate” could be­come a tip­ping point for real change if South Korean politi­cians and vot­ers se­ri­ously re­flect on their coun­try’s record of pres­i­den­tial scan­dals and learn from their mistakes.

– East Asia Forum

Hyung-A Kim is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the School of Cul­ture, His­tory and Lan­guage, Col­lege of Asia and the Pa­cific, Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

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