By Grace Guo
The cronyism row engulfing South Korean President Park Geun-hye is not only severely weakening her position as the country’s leader, but is also seriously undermining the united front between South Korea, Japan and the US in the face of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Park’s legitimacy as President is flat-lining after she admitted allowing her cult-linked friend Choi Soon-sil to exert undue influence over government policy and use their relationship for the latter’s personal financial gain. Choi was arrested earlier this week over allegations of fraud and interfering in state affairs. A number of banks have also been raided in connection with the controversy and two of Park’s former presidential aides were just arrested.
Choi is the daughter of religious cult leader Choi Tae-min, who was Park’s mentor until he passed away in 1994. According to a 2007 US diplomatic cable from the American Embassy in Seoul, made public by WikiLeaks, Mr. Choi “had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and… his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
Park has attempted to defuse the situation by apologizing to the public in a televised address in which she confessed to giving Choi access to confidential documents that her close friend did not have clearance to consult. She admitted that Choi had advised her, helped her with speeches and public relations during her election campaign, and continued to offer advice when she took office. In a move akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, Park has also instigated a massive shake-up at the top of her government, appointing a new prime minister and finance minister. But the opposition-controlled National Assembly blocked the nomination, saying they weren’t consulted on the names. Park folded and agreed to install their choice of prime minister who will be given sweeping powers in what is a clear break from the traditionally titular role the position plays.
Ironically, confirmation of Choi’s influence over Park’s administration came after South Korea introduced a tough anti-graft law in September designed to curb corruption in the public sector. The legislation is intended to put a stop to the bribing of public officials in return for favors. Choi is accused of embezzling money and pressuring big firms to donate large sums of money to foundations she directly benefited from. The timing could hardly have been any worse in terms of public perception.
Despite the fact that her approval ratings hover around a dismally depressive 5%, with thousands of South Koreans taking to the streets of Seoul last weekend to demand she step down over the growing scandal, Park will likely cling to office until the end of her five-year term, which is due to finish in February 2018. While South Korean premiers are typically lumbered with lame-duck status as they enter the final stretch of their one-term leadership, Park’s current position threatens to send negative shockwaves across the region.
Park Tae-woo, professor at the Institute of Sustainable Development of Korea University has described “Choi-gate” as the biggest crisis South Korea has faced since the Korean War. According to the professor, the government is so weakened by the developing saga that the loss of authority it has suffered might threaten its work on national defense. On the economic front, South Korea’s main stock trading index lost significant ground as investors digested the implications of the fall-out from the affair. Korean equities lost $14.9 billion in a single week and the country is now teetering on the verge of deflation.
Choi-gate is putting pressures on Park’s supposed détente with Japan. In December, the two countries clinched a “final and irreversible” agreement that put to rest the issue of the so called “comfort women” after Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, issued an official apology and created a fund for survivors. However, some civic groups have insisted that the agreement doesn’t cover all the bases and have put pressure on Park to rescind the agreement. Shortly after Choi-gate broke, one of those groups, the North Korea-aligned Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan urged Park to step down. Japanese officials recognized the threat and said the controversy could “have an effect on the solutions of pending issues between the two countries.” As a face-saving tactic, she could even try to piggyback on the nationalist vein and spark diplomatic rifts with Tokyo.
Most worryingly, the fall-out from the scandal could have ominous implications for North Korean containment. At play is a trilateral December summit with Japan and China which would likely focus on North Korea’s nuclear program. But the Choi scandal in full swing, coupled with renewed South Korean nationalism might stop Park from participating. Furthermore, strained relations between South Korea and Japan will do little to strengthen opposition to Pyongyang’s growing nuclear capabilities during a year when the US has been distracted from Kim Jong-un’s activities by its venomous election campaign.
In all, Choi-gate serves as an almighty distraction that has served to undermine Park’s previous work on North Korean containment and makes it all but impossible for her administration to work effectively with South Korea’s partners in the fight to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. Yoon Peyeong-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University, this week told the Korea Herald that it is now impossible for Park to exercise any authority, arguing that the scandal will now overshadow both the economy and North Korea’s nuclear tests while she remains in power. He is right. It would better for the country and the security of the world if Park accepted that she is finished and stood down sooner rather than later.