South Korea is having its Watergate moment. President Park Geun-hye is currently embroiled in a scandal that has rocked the country and unsurprisingly turned its citizens against their leader and the ruling conservative Saenuri Party. Like Richard Nixon, Park is almost certain to be forced out of office due to the overwhelming evidence against her that has surfaced over the past weeks.
Even though South Korea has had its fair share of political controversies — corruption allegations have dogged every president since the country’s democratization in 1987 — it is unfortunate that this recent scandal is taking hold now and distracting the government from being able to fully focus on the threat from its provocative northern neighbor.
Who is President Park?
Park has been in the public eye for virtually all her life. Born in 1952, a year before the Korean War ended in a truce, her father was Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s third president during the 60’s and 70’s. When she was 22, her mother was killed by a North Korean sympathizer, who was on a mission to assassinate then-President Park. As a result, the younger Park assumed the role of First Lady of South Korea.
While the 1974 assassination attempt was unsuccessful, it foreshadowed the ultimate fate of President Park Chung-hee; just five years later in 1979, he was shot dead by his own intelligence chief. Despite the tragedies that affected the nation and her personally, Park Geun-hye would remain in the public eye and pursue a political career, which culminated in winning the December 2012 presidential election and being inaugurated the following February.
What is the controversy about?
The controversy surrounding Park is tied to her informal friend and longtime adviser Choi Soon-sil. In fact, Choi’s family and Park have a long history together. Choi’s father began to mentor Park when she was in her early 20’s, and the family has had much influence over Park ever since. According to one scholar, the relationship was “deeply intertwined, almost like they’re Rasputin and Park Geun-hye is just a puppet.”
Beginning in October, reports surfaced that Choi gained access to confidential government documents, despite having no official role in the administration or security clearance, and took advantage of her relationship with Park to accumulate millions of dollars for foundations that she runs. The accusations began to mount during the following weeks, and prosecutors late last month eventually declared their belief that Park was a co-conspirator in the crimes committed by Choi.
What has been happening in South Korea?
The scandal has roiled the East Asian nation, and its citizens have been very active in their opposition to their president. Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have protested multiple weeks in Seoul and in other major cities, demanding Park’s resignation. These protests have been the largest in the country’s history, showing the extreme displeasure the overwhelming majority of citizens have toward Park. According to Reuters on December 8, her approval rating was 5%, and 81% supported her impeachment. That 81% got their wish the next day when lawmakers in South Korea’s National Assembly, which is controlled by Park’s political party, overwhelmingly voted to impeach the president, 234-56.
Even though she does not have to leave the presidential Blue House immediately, Park is stripped of her executive powers, and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has become acting president. Park’s fate now lies in the hands of South Korea’s constitutional court, which will have up to 180 days to decide whether the impeachment vote is valid. The court’s acceptance of the vote would result in a disgraceful end to Park’s presidency — she would be the first democratically elected South Korean president to be ousted — and an election for a new president would be held within 60 days.
What has been North Korea’s reaction?
As domestic unrest permeates South Korean society, the unpredictability of the regime in Pyongyang continues to cast its shadow over Seoul. Even though North Korea has not taken the golden opportunity to lambast its southern neighbor on the international stage, Kim Jong-un must be thrilled that the world’s attention is focused on South Korea. The attention could extend for about six more months as the constitutional court decides on whether to follow through on the impeachment vote, as previously mentioned.
Kim may view this these circumstances as the perfect time to conduct more illicit activities without international purview. According to one defector, South Korea’s political crisis allows the dictator to “earn more time after the failure of recent missile tests, and develop nuclear arms.” Fortunately, the strong relationship between the US and South Korea will continue to act as a deterrent to Pyongyang’s destabilizing activities.
How does the US fit into all of this?
The US and South Korea are strong allies that both have an enormous stake in the stability of East Asia. President Park was given the opportunity to speak before a joint session of Congress in 2013, which showcases the close relationship both countries maintain. Recently, they agreed to deploy the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system battery in South Korea. THAAD will enable Seoul to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles from the north, but China is not too happy with this upcoming deployment because it believes that THAAD will “exceed” South Korea’s defense needs, “undermine” Chinese security interests, and “shatter” the balance of power in East Asia.
As a new US administration takes over Washington, President Donald Trump will need to figure out a way to skillfully navigate the region. Trump will need to not only maximize American cooperation with South Korea but also know how to prod China into pressuring North Korea to cease its nuclear activities. It’s undoubtedly a complicated task, but hopefully the South Korean domestic crisis is resolved soon so that the new president and Trump will be able to present a united front in tackling these issues before they spin out of control.
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