Not just a corruption case: the South Korean Presidential Scandal

Not just a corruption case: the South Korean Presidential Scandal

South Koreans were swept off their feet with tidings of possibly the worst political corruption scandal in recent history.

Initial reports of Sun-sil Choi, a businesswoman unaffiliated with the government, accused President Park Geun-hye of allowing Choi unparalleled access and authority over presidential speeches. The situation blew up even further as the Park-Choi connection has led to allegations of intra-government, corporate, and academic corruption in the dozens. With the South Korean public in panic and the government on full hold, President Park’s approval ratings have reached an all-time historical low of five percent. Stocks have also fallen in response to this crisis, deemed “by far the biggest crisis in South Korea’s history” minus the Korean War.

As the scandal involves key figures in South Korean politics, policymaking, business, and diplomacy, it is crucial to stay up-to-date with the developments, particularly over new allegations and investigations. However, as such reports flood in by the hundreds every day, contextual and procedural knowledge of the broader political backdrop of the scandal is a must.

De-legitimization is the real problem

South Korea is not a stranger to top-level corruption. However, the Park-Choi scandal is not just a corruption case. The initial incident alone, that Choi has edited Park’s major speeches, with Park confirming allegations in a public apology, represents a significant breach of security in South Korea’s policy making apparatus.

While this event is indeed the figurehead of the crisis, which has led some media outlets to liken it to the Clinton email leaks, it was only the tip of a longstanding and deep-rooted ecology of corruption in the South Korean government-business complex. This is why the scandal is considered the most detrimental government ‘crisis’ in recent decades. It poses a serious challenge on the governing legitimacy of the current administration, as well as its diplomatic credibility.

Adding to the crisis is the apparent inability of the government system to resist such illegitimate, external inputs. Reserving judgment on whether key government officials in the Park regime have collaborated willfully, Choi’s speech intervention reaches as far back as 2012. Following that, it seems Choi had access to government facilities, as well as President Park, that no other civilian has had.

Lastly, an avalanche of further allegations followed when the President confirmed the speech leak. These include illegitimate funding to Choi’s Mir Foundation from numerous South Korean conglomerates, large-scale academic corruption at Ewha Women’s University where Choi’s daughter attended, preferential loans from major banks, and more.

Aside from such a web of corruption scandals, further rumors have been circulated with regards to Choi’s intervention in Park’s North Korea policies as well as her engagement with Japan on the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute and comfort women issue. The worst of these rumors relates the scandal back to the Sewol tragedy, accusing Choi and Park of hindering rescue efforts, as well as engineering the “accident.”

Implications: facts, rumors, and investigations

To be clear, the above list of rumors is incomplete and growing, and ranges from the likely to the incredulous. In analyzing the possible implications, it is crucial to divide the allegations into three categories: confirmed facts, allegations under investigation, and sideway rumors.

As of November 6, 2016, the only confirmed fact is that Choi has edited Park’s to-be-made statements. Following the allegations first made by JTBC, a South Korean news media, both Park and Choi have confirmed that the edits have happened. However, even here, further investigation is needed to confirm 1.) the extent of the edits, 2.) the percentage of edits that took place after Park was elected, and 3.) the amount of ideational influence, versus phrasing edits, that Choi had on the speeches.

Naturally, anything that remains an allegation will have no impact on the legal proceedings against Choi, possible future charges against Park, or against other culprits. At this point, Choi has been arrested on allegations of abuse of authority, with additional points like illegal/forced solicitation of funds and leak of confidential material likely candidates.

The most important point to watch for is whether the prosecutors officially point to President Park, as well as other key individuals in her regime, as collaborators. Such developments will pose powerful pressure for structural changes on the Park administration. While opposition political leaders and major portions of the public are already demanding Park to step down, to form a special investigation into Park’s personal conduct, and to create a multi-party coalition government, there is a long way to go from allegations to legal proceedings, particularly in a constitutional context. So far, Park has offered cooperation for any investigations, but none have been made directly on the President yet.

However, this is not to say that unconfirmed allegations (a.k.a. rumors) are without effect. The Blue House staff attacked the speech leaks as a rumor impossible even in “the feudal age.” When Park herself confirmed the rumors after such a strong denial from her staffers, the obvious dissonance heavily damaged government credibility and in turn empowered rumors. And indeed, some of these rumors are not new; a 2007 cable from the US Embassy in South Korea recovered by Wikileaks cites rumors that Park, a presidential candidate at the time, was being controlled “body and soul” by Choi Tae-min, Choi Sun-sil’s father. Local news media has also extensively reported and reproduced rumors. Such rumors have played a powerful role in undermining Park’s governing legitimacy.

In terms of rumors, the most significant political development is the shift in support from the conservative Sannuri Party, with which Park is strongly identified, to the liberal parties, particularly the Minjoo Party. This then results in policy changes on topics particularly politicized in South Korean politics, like interaction with the US and North Korea, tax laws, social welfare, and so on. The crisis, carried by both facts and rumors, is also likely to deeply impact presidential elections in South Korea, which are coming up next year.

Looking forward

As previously stated, the scandal is ongoing, which is why the situation is still dangerously uncertain. Due to the constant influx of rumors, updates, and controversies, concerned audiences need to remain focused on the legal and political implications of individual developments to judge their effects on the economy and policy.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Hyo Sung Joo

Hyo Sung Joo is an analyst currently in Seoul, South Korea, with a focus on East Asian and Southeast Asian security politics, as well as a broader interest in global terrorism and civil war. He has received an MA from the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago, and his BA from Claremont McKenna College.