‘Irrational corruption’: South Korea’s president facing impeachment in influence peddling scandal

The presidential administration of South Korea’s embattled President Park Geun-hye appeared to coming to an end as it was announced in the north-east Asian country’s parliament that a motion for her impeachment would be discussed on 2 December. The president has already announced that she will resign if a suitable plan for the safe transfer of power can be produced, but her parliamentary opponents have accused her of attempting a cynical manoeuvre to dodge the impending impeachment charges.

Ms Park’s political standing has been fatally undermined by an influence-peddling scandal involving her close associate and long time friend Choi Soon-sil. The scandal has led to an extensive investigation by South Korean prosecutors into Choi’s business dealings. Other allegations centre around businesses being pressured to donate funds to charitable foundations controlled by Choi, and on stories that President Park leaked her official state documents for which she had no clearance. South Korean politics has been rocked by weeks of massive street demonstrations calling on President Park to resign since the scandal broke. Now even the president’s conservative allies have begun to desert her and it seems as though she is extremely unlikely to complete her single five year term of office.

That would make President Park very unlucky by the standards of her presidential predecessors. On the one hand the turmoil currently engulfing her administration is almost unprecedented, as no South Korean leader has resigned from office since 1960, when the country’s founding strongman Syngman Rhee fell from power. On the other hand the consequences of past actions often catch up with former South Korean presidents once they have left the safety of high office. Since the introduction of democracy in the 1990s, no South Korean president has escaped the taint of corruption scandals altogether, with former presidents or their families repeatedly falling afoul of the law. President Park’s predecessor but one, Roh Moo-hyun, even committed suicide after charges that his family had accepted $6m in bribes during his term of office began to look likely.

Even by the standards of her predecessors however, the scandal involving the president’s friend Choi Soon-sil is potent in South Korea, where its roots stretch back to key historical events that created the country as it is known today. President Park first met Choi Soon-sil’s father, Choi Tae-min, in 1975 when she had just lost her mother, who was assassinated by a North Korean spy. Park Geun-hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, ran South Korea as a modernising military dictator. Indeed Park Geun-hye first took part in state affairs under her father’s administration, serving as first lady after her mother’s murder. Park senior’s own eventual assassination in 1979 is believed in part to have occurred because Choi Tae-min, a pseudo-Christian leader who controlled a cult known as The Church of Eternal Life, seemed to be welding the same sort of influence over both Ms Park and her father that his daughter now stands accused of welding during the present administration.

When now-President Park ran for the presidency, the legacy of her father, which still attracts fierce debate between admirers and detractors, both helped and hindered her. But the perception that key South Korean national policy decisions may have been influenced by the second generation of mentorship from a fringe cult has been hugely damaging to Ms Park’s presidency. On the financial side of things Korean prosecutors are now alleging that Ms Park was personally complicit in helping Choi strong-arm firms into favouring her companies and foundations, and this perception of ‘irrational corruption’ has shocked even a society which is used to tales of familial corruption scandals involving its leaders.

Under the present South Korean constitution however, a sitting president has immunity from prosecution, which is why so many Korean leaders only fall afoul of the law once their term of office is up. President Park’s actions are seen as so bizarre however that it looks like she will be removed from office in order to facilitate her speedy prosecution. Public outrage has played a large part in breaking down barriers to this, in what otherwise seems an entrenched political culture of sleaze that long predates Ms Park’s administration.

President Park came to power promising to improve relations with North Korea and boost South Korea’s struggling economy. She failed to achieve either of these goals once in power however, and this limited her room for manoeuvre once news of the Choi scandal broke. Despite a root and branch reform of her administration and several televised apologies since then, it now looks as though her conservative allies are hoping she will be allowed to resign and a sympathetic caretaker can be installed to serve out the short remainder of Park’s term. They have demanded that the impeachment motion scheduled for 2 December be frozen and even suggested that President Park could stay on in office until April.

Should the impeachment of Ms Park still go ahead however, her powers will be transferred to the Prime Minister, an office currently outside of the weakened President’s control. The matter of her impeachment would then be transferred to South Korea’s constitutional court for judgement on its legality. If the judges there decide her impeachment was valid, President Park would lose her immunity from prosecution and new presidential elections would have to be organised ahead of schedule. It seems that whatever the outcome of South Korea’s parliamentary impeachment vote on 2 December, the turmoil affecting the country’s domestic politics will continue deep into 2017.

Roberto Pucciano

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