03.11.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The scandal around Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil – pre-election exacerbation?

23423423423As it has already been pointed out, the scandal in the Republic of Korea around the figure of Park Geun-hye has moved past the point of a purely corruption case connected with the illegal fund-raising for Mir and K-Sports Foundations, and now accusations against Ms. Choi and her friend, the President, have taken a new turn. The scandal is being inflated both by the opposition, and by the formally mainstream media of the Republic of Korea. The problem has received wide coverage in the English-language newspapers leading to a whole range of materials that state that the President’s rating in the Republic of Korea has never fallen so much and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye is not just on the horizon, but just round the corner.

Who is Choi Soon-sil? She is a close friend of the President and is 4 years younger than Park Geun-hye. She is perhaps her closest friend and almost like a relative to her as Park’s relations with her own brother and sister are strained. They have known each other for about 40 years, and Choi has even chosen outfits for Park.

Nonetheless, in the context of the corruption story and the digs made against Choi, more details have been discovered: a close friend of the President, a kind of confidante even, has had access to confidential documents and has influenced the elaboration of political solutions without holding any official status. According to the former assistant to Choi Lee Seong-han, she met with experts from time to time and obtained confidential documents from the Blue House. According to the opposition media, she was given 30-centimetre thick folders: the Presidential report packet.

Park Geun-hye has tried to soften the blow by making formal apologies. On October 25, the President of the Republic of Korea confessed that she had consulted with her sister-in-arms while preparing for various public statements in the past, as she helped her during hard times. Thus, while preparing for the presidential election Park Geun-hye turned to Choi Soon-sil for advice on how to run her election campaign, preparation of speeches and propaganda materials, and after assuming the President’s office, she took interest in her opinion several times. But this communication was stopped after the President appointed advisers.

However, on the same day, the conservative JTBC channel obtained information from the Prosecutor’s Office that Choi had more than 40 secret documents on her tablet, which she had obtained earlier than Park. JTBC also reported that on December 28, 2012, after her victory, Park Geun-hye met with the acting President Lee Myung-bak. They revealed that the entire plan of the meeting, including the questions and answers, had been provided by Choi Soon-sil. Finally, the President had to admit that Choi was editing her speeches during the first two years of her presidency at least.

On October 26, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Toburo, Choo Mi-ae declared the need to conduct an investigation of the scandal around Choi Soon-sil and bring all those who contributed to the intervention of a private person in the affairs of the state to justice. She also stated that the head of state would have to be punished if violations of the law were revealed. Many representatives of the ruling Saenuri Party agreed – some of them are even demanding the head of state step down from the Party in order to remove all potential obstacles to the investigation.

The opposition is making a Rasputin out of Choi – the President has been manipulated by a semi-literate person: the former Presidential candidate from Roh Moo-hyun’s Party (who conceded to Lee Myung-bak due statements he made such as “The elderly should not participate in elections as they will die soon and nobody is interested in their opinion”) and the current, prominent opposition politician Chung Dong-young have publicly suggested that the recent decisions made by Seoul to sharply toughen the policy toward North Korea were proposed by Choi. In fact, if all the propaganda of the opposition can be believed, it means that Park’s more moderate political position in her early presidency (the “trust process”, “Eurasian Initiative”) was also advocated by Choi.

Once again, if the President’s confidante has been such a power broker as the opposition media is describing her, and almost all the decisions required her approval, the question arises as to why information about it has never leaked before. The fact that the world has learned about the role of Ms. Choi in the Korean politics so “suddenly” suggests that we are dealing with elements of information warfare. Moreover, readers that closely study the Russian-Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts know all about the value of sensational television exposure.

What is the reaction to the scandal? In an interview to Segye Ilbo newspaper, Choi Soon-sil confirmed that she had edited the President’s speeches (without knowing that they were secret), but denied the other charges. Later she announced that she would share information that she knew with the investigators. She is ready to be punished if her fault in violating the law is proven, but violations can differ.

Park Geun-hye has carried a staff reshuffle in her Secretariat – the Secretary for Civil Affairs Woo Byung-woo, Chief of Staff Lee Won-jong, the Secretary for Political Affairs Kim Jae Won and Press Secretary Kim Sung-woo were the only ones to remain in their positions. The President accepted the resignation of her Personal Secretary Jeong Ho-seong, the Secretary for General Issues Lee Jae-man, and the Secretary for Public Relations Ahn Bong-geun. The last three had been working with the President for 18 years. The opposition believes all these people to be related to Choi Soon-sil.

The Republic of Korea General Prosecutor’s Office has announced the creation of a special group of 15 employees to investigate the charges against Choi Soon-sil, but the opposition has started to pose questions about how dependent this special prosecutor will be on the Blue House, and whether he/she will have to interrogate the president. According to the leader of the parliamentary group of the People’s Party Park Ji-won, the Special Prosecutor can not conduct an investigation in respect of the acting President.

But the public opinion in Korea has been whipped into a rage as it considers the interference of a stranger in the state policy to be an unprecedented event. 43% of Koreans are demanding the President’s resignation, and only 17.5% of the Koreans believe that she is acting correctly. 76% of people criticise Park, which is an all time low for her.

On October 29, Seoul hosted a mass anti-government protest with candles, in which participants demanded the immediate resignation of Park Geun-hye from the President’s post. According to the police, about one thousand people participated in the demonstration, while the opposition states that the turn out was 12 times higher.

In general, the fact that the president’s speeches have been edited by a person who did not have official access to them is clearly an error on behalf of the President and reason for a scandal similar to those around Hillary Clinton and her assistant. However, in the author’s opinion, the investigation should focus on the following issues:

  • Whether the confidential information obtained by Choi created a threat to the national security and what was the probability of its leak?
  • Are there any testimonies that Choi’s amendments in the documents were not just stylistic but ideological? In the author’s opinion, if it was proven that her amendments were ideological, the opposition media would have presented a whole range of poignant examples.
  • How many of the proposed amendments were adopted by the President and how many were rejected. This will determine the degree of influence at least.

Will impeachment take place? We have written many times that Park has been between a rock and a hard place throughout her presidency. Thus, she has now been attacked from the both sides. People who are prone to conspiracy theories might pay attention to the fact that the most high-profile revelations are being made not by the opposition, but by the Conservatives.

The accusations on Park’s staff of corruption and the interference of Choi in state affairs may result in the issue of Park’s powers being prematurely terminated due to the loss of public trust. If additional facts are revealed, we will report them.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.


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