Background on the South Korean Scandal

Donovan Maudsley - 3N Mechanical
Posted on: November 19, 2016

With the majority of the world fixated on the presidential election in the US over the past few months, few have heard of the scandal on the other side of world. South Korea’s presidential palace, affectionately known as the Blue House, may soon become vacant. President Park Geun-hye has been widely accused of corruption and her resignation is demanded. The people of Seoul have taken to the streets four weeks in a row now, and brought the downtown core of the city to a standstill. Organizers of the rallies have estimated around 500 000 people came out on November 19. The police have stated that these numbers are greatly inflated, but the pictures of the rallies speak for themselves. It looks more like New Year’s Eve in Times Square than a November night in Seoul.

The scandal revolves around the relationship between Ms. Park and her close friend Choi Soon-sil, but the foundation for it goes back decades. Ms. Park is the daughter of the late Park Chung-hee, a military leader-turned President who established the current era of South Korean democracy through a coup in 1961. Under his leadership South Korea was rapidly industrialized and the economy was greatly strengthened. When Park took power North Korea was by far the more successful country. The resources and support of the rest of the communist bloc meant that North Korea’s industry was far more advanced than South Korea’s. Park doubled down on South Korea’s relationship with Western powers like the United States and West Germany. South Korea’s military presence in the Vietnam War was second only to the United States. Germany relied on foreign labour, such as mine workers and nurses, from South Korea until 1977.

The economic growth in South Korea started slowing in the 1970s, and the population became disenfranchised with Park’s autocratic rule. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were virtually nonexistent. The Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) had wide powers of arrest, detention, and torture which were used extensively on Park’s opponents. In 1974 a man fired at the President during a speech in Seoul and struck the first lady, Yuk Young-soo, who died later that day. Park Geun-hye, who was 22 at the time, returned from school in Germany and began acting as her father’s de-facto first lady. It was at this point that the base of scandal began to form. Choi Tae-min, the leader of a pseudo-Christian cult and the father of the aforementioned Choi Soon-sil, approached Ms. Park saying that her dead mother had visited him in his dreams. A KCIA report from the time states that Mr. Choi was acting on supposed wishes from the late first lady. Choi Tae-min became a mentor to Ms. Park during her formative years and an advisor to the President.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Mr. Park was assassinated in 1979 by his close friend Kim Jae-gyu, the chief of the KCIA. Kim stated during his trial that one of his motives was that the President had failed to stop the development of the relationship between Ms. Park and Choi Tae-min. Kim was hanged in Seoul in 1980.

Ms. Park and Mr. Choi remained close until his death in 1994. Many have claimed that Mr. Choi is the “Korea Rasputin”, manipulating power while never holding it. Documents leaked from the U.S. embassy in Seoul claim that Mr. Choi “had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years”. After his death Ms. Park remained close with Choi Soon-sil.

Ms. Park has been an elected member of the South Korean government since 1998, and was the Leader of the Saenuri Party from 2004 till 2006 and again from 2011 till 2012, before being elected President in 2013. The first real trial of her Presidency came in 2014 after the sinking of the MV Sewol, a passenger ferry, where 292 passengers, 3 crew members, and 2 rescues divers lost their lives. The captain, who by South Korean law was required to remain with the ship, was one of the first onto the rescue helicopter. Many allege that lax regulations set by the Park administration led to the tragedy. Rumours of a secret seven-hour meeting immediately after the incident between Ms. Park, Ms. Choi, and Ms. Park’s chief of staff quickly emerged. Ms. Park’s approval ratings plummeted from around 71% to near 40% within weeks of the incident.

Fast forward to 2016 and accusations of corruption begin to erupt out of Seoul. Many allege that Ms. Choi has been responsible for much of the decision making and governmental policy since Ms. Park took office. The documents leaked from the U.S. embassy also state that Choi Soon-sil and her family have amassed wealth due to her proximity to Ms. Park. The President’s approval ratings took another plunge in October, falling to around 5%. Choi Soon-sil returned to South Korea on October 30 and is facing prosecution. She told reporters on October 31 “Please, forgive me. I’m sorry, I committed a sin that deserves death”.

Ms. Park has also apologized for her part in the scandal, but so far has refused to step down. With hundreds of thousands gathering in the streets every week to demand her resignation though, it is very likely that her stay in the Blue House will not last much longer.