CAN PRESIDENT PARK SURVIVE HER WORST CRISIS?
As the chaos in South Korea continues to intensify, President Park Geun-hye has very little time left to resolve the situation. New developments keep pouring in from Seoul. As I write this, in fact, we have just learned that Korean prosecutors have now started searching the offices and homes of presidential aides in connection with their investigation.
Cho Gap-che, one of Korea’s most respected journalists, warns that not only liberals but conservatives as well could soon be massing in Gwanghawamun Square to demand Park’s resignation.
Even conservative elder Korean citizens who constitute the core of Park supporters are defecting from her. The scandal came into the open when the Korean press discovered that Park had leaked official state documents to a businesswoman named Choi Soon-sil. As Park’s close friend and shaman-like advisor, Ms. Choi has allegedly used her access to Park over the years to peddle influence and fatten her wallet. Choi fled to Germany with her daughter when the press began reporting on the scandal centering around her murky relations with Park.
Hong Hyung, chief editorial writer for the Toitsu Nippo (Tong-il Ilbo in Korean), a Japanese language newspaper for Korean residents in Japan, has this to say about the current scandal:
“There is a complicated background to the incident involving Ms. Choi. Her father was a pseudo-Christian pastor named Choi Tai-min who had a powerful influence over Park’s father, former President Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979. Choi, who died in 1994 at age 81, was known as the Rasputin of South Korea.”
Grigori Rasputin (1869-1916) was a mystical faith healer who had significant power in the imperial Russian court. In similar fashion, Choi swiftly increased his influence over the Park family after Geun-hye’s mother was assassinated in 1974. Gun-hye was 22 years old then. Hong explains:
“In every way, Choi won the heart and mind of Geun-hye, who had just had her mother killed by an assassin. Alarmed that she was being manipulated by the pastor, Kim Jae-kyu—Park Chung-hee’s chief aide and Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)—warned him about his daughter’s relationship with the pastor. However, the Korean dictator brushed aside Kim’s advice, as he trusted his daughter.”
On October 27, the Chosen Ilbo quoted Wikileaks as releasing a confidential diplomatic document pertaining to this incident purportedly based on a 2007 report by William Stanton, then Minister of the US Embassy in Seoul. Stanton reported to Ambassador Alexander Vershbow on Geun-hye as follows:
“Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.”
Vershbow relayed Stanton’s report to Washington, designating it as “top secret.” Explains Hong:
“President Park was assassinated by Kim Jae-Kyu in October 1979. Kim’s attorney maintained in an appeal hearing that one of the reasons for his client’s action was that Park had refused to heed his advice concerning his daughter’s relationship with Choi. Most elderly Koreans are familiar with this backdrop. They are devoted worshippers of the late president; not a few of them view his death as having effectively been caused by his own daughter.”
The Korean conservative camp has frequently urged Ms. Park to clarify her relationship with Choi and his daughter Soon-sil, according to Hong.
“But she has denied any allegation each time,” explains Hong, “emphasizing that the Chois have never been dubious individuals and that their relationship with her is nothing special.”
In reality, however, Park valued her friendship with Ms. Choi highly, often sharing confidential state documents with her and allegedly enabling her to coerce big businesses to donate millions of dollars to foundations she controls. First, there was Ms. Park’s odd relationship with the pastor that reportedly led to her father’s assassination, which in turn led to the murky relationship with the pastor’s daughter. Meanwhile, after entering the Blue House as president of South Korea, Park would not even see able bureaucrats who worked at her office or influential and patriotic members of political and financial communities. Comments Hong:
“No wonder Park has been called ‘inaccessible.’ She appeared to be all alone in that spacious presidential mansion, but she actually kept up an intimate conversation with Ms. Choi.”
For the Korean people who elected her president, Park Geun-hye was supposed to be the beloved daughter of a charismatic late president––the cloistered lonely young lady they once vowed to protect to the end after her parents were assassinated. To have to accept the confidential cable of the American ambassador as reflecting the truth must itself have been more than humiliating to them. Journalist Cho analyzes the true nature of the problems that squarely confront them as follows:
–Ms. Park kept lying to the people about her relationship with Ms. Choi. A law-abiding nation is called as such only when its government institutions are fundamentally sincere, and thereby win the trust of the people. In this vein, that the Blue House kept a lid on these matters pertaining to Ms. Choi is a problem far more serious than her intervention in state affairs itself;
–Ms. Choi fled South Korea to Germany with her daughter when the scandal erupted and initially refused to come home. Their impudent conduct could not have been possible without President Park’s approval and support. Ms. Park’s obstruction of justice in this regard could be a solid reason for impeachment if the ongoing crisis is not resolved; and,
–No past president is more guilty than Ms. Park of political abuse of the public prosecutor. Numerous unjust criminal investigations have been conducted under her executive orders, driving some to suicide. President Park has seriously undermined the identity and fairness of the public prosecutor, which should be recorded as an ignominy of historic proportions.
Park’s “True Family”
Cho’s analysis is very harsh. However, that the Korean people are now looking at Park with jaundiced eyes can readily be observed from the sharp decline in her support (down to 14% as of October 28), with disapproval ratings soaring to 74%. Clearly, Ms. Park is caught up in her worst crisis since assuming office in February 2013.
To recover from this situation, it is imperative that she cooperate fully with the prosecution. Ms. Choi, who has been taken into custody after her recent return from Germany, must also be made to cooperate in the investigation. Cho feels that the crisis will not be resolved unless Park reshuffles her secretarial office, leaves the governing Saenuri Party, and shows her resolve to entrust the prime minister with the daily administration of the national government.
In response to the growing public pressure, Park ordered ten of her senior secretaries to step down late October 28. Will this lead to a desired solution of the current crisis? Cho flatly rules out any such possibility, pointing out:
“Park has three close aides, known as the ‘three gatekeepers,’ who have served as her secretaries over the past 19 years. Ordinarily, she should have first discharged this trio, but she has not taken any step to hold them responsible. This way she can hardly expect to get things straight.”
For Ms. Park, who has chosen to live in solitude over the years, her true family appears to be the Chois. Keeping her real brother and sister away from the Blue House, Park has instructed them to consult with the Choi family whenever necessary. Given that she has yet to reject the Chois at this stage of the game, she can be construed as being helplessly dependent on them psychologically.
With their president under the influence of a woman of such dubious character, Koreans are facing a political crisis that puts them between a rock and a hard place. If Park steps down, they will very likely be thrown into total chaos. And yet, if she clings to office, one sees no prospect of her regaining her lost authority and leadership in the coming year leading to the next presidential election. We must continue to closely monitor the ongoing crisis in Korea, as it could have a deeply negative impact on Japan.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 728 in the November 10, 2016 issue of The Weekly Shincho)