We are continuing to inform our readers on the scandal around Choi Sung-sil – confidante of President Park Geun-hye, as the crisis caused by her interference in the affairs of the state and linked to corruption continues to roll on.
To recap, Choi Sung-sil had no official right to do so but had access to and read official materials, corrected the President’s speeches (though there is still no evidence of an ideological (rather than stylistic) nature of the corrections) and is suspected to have raised funds from major companies, including Lotte and SK Group, for MIR and K-Sports Foundations related to her.
On November 4, 2016 the South Korean President appeared on live TV and apologized, admitting that “over-reliance on Choi Sung-sil had blinded my objectivity and allowed my guard to drop”. She spoke with great emotion, which is unusual for her, took full responsibility for the scandal and said that she was very sorry that she had disappointed the people who had entrusted her with the right to rule the state. Park said that she had been working on improving the economy and living standards, but some individuals had been acting illegally in their own interests, about which she is deeply concerned. Her emotional reaction is reasonable. Looking into her biography – after her parents’ death and against the background of very difficult relationship with her family, Choi Sung-sil, the daughter of her spiritual advisor, was her closest friend and a companion-in-arm
The President emphasized that she was ready to accept all the demands of the population and the National Assembly in the course of performing her duties. This includes, if necessary, rendering assistance to the prosecutor’s office investigation and taking part in the special investigation, although formally she could legitimately refuse to do so.
However, Park Geun-hye noted that the country’s security and economics are currently under great threat. Therefore, it is impermissible for the implementation of state policy to be halted.
However, the president’s apologies have not gone down well with everyone. The (incumbent) Saenuri Party received the President’s speech quite positively, stating that the President had agreed with all the public demands and had expressed a firm commitment to clarify all the details of the scandal and prevent similar situations in the future. The head of the opposition Toburo Democratic Party, Choo Mi-ae, on the contrary, said that the apologies of Park Geun-hye did not provide any answers, which the outraged people were waiting for, and called the President’s speech “mere disingenuous apologies”. The Chairman of the Interim Committee of the People’s Party, Pak Chi-wong, pointed out the unacceptability of Park Geun-hye’s statements that the Choi Sung-sil matter had its roots in actions aimed at improving the economy and living standards of the population, but praised the willingness of Park Geun-hye to cooperate with the prosecutor’s office in the investigation.
As a result, the opposition only increased its pressure and actually presented an ultimatum to the President – either the Parliament initiates impeachment or Park steps down from domestic politics and removes the Prime Minister newly appointed by her. He is a representative of the Left, but not the one who would satisfy the opposition leaders.
This demands are all backed up by the disgruntled general public. On November 5, there was a candle-lit demonstration in Seoul, which according to official data was attended by 45 thousand people. According to the data of the opposition – attendance reached 100 thousand (some even mentioned two hundred thousand, but this is an obvious exaggeration). There were no outright confrontations. The police (about 20 thousand officers in 220 cars) behaved appropriately, but on November 12 protests recurred.
How is the investigation going in the meantime? On November 3, Choi Sung-sil was detained in custody, but WITHOUT being charged. This is a practice in the Republic of Korea (which has been repeatedly criticized by human rights activists). It is permitted to hold persons in custody for up to 20 days even if there is not enough evidence to press charges against them. The decision to hold Choi was made by the Seoul Central District Court at the request of the prosecutor’s office.
On the same day, another person involved in the corruption scandal – the former senior advisor for policy, Ahn Jong-beom,, said during interrogation that the MIR and K-Sports Foundations (the subject of the investigation) were established under the orders of President Park Geun-hye, which could explain how quickly they were officially registered. Ahn Jong-beom, stated, that in her policy the head of the state pays great attention to culture and the creative economy, and rejected suspicions of her involvement in fund-raising from large companies to aid the aforementioned foundations. He said that representatives of the business community were under no pressure and voluntarily decided to participate in the establishment of the foundations.
The Former Secretary of the President of the Republic of Korea for civil affairs Woo Byung-woo has also been summoned for questioning by the prosecutor’s office. He is suspected of involvement in fund-raising from companies for MIR and K-Sports foundations, and will be questioned as a witness, although (depending on the investigation results) he may become a suspect. There are suspicions (as yet unproven) that he spent the funds of the foundations for personal use, registered property belonging to his wife to a fraudulent third party and used his influence to help his son complete compulsory military service in the police as opposed to the armed forces.
In general, there is no convincing evidence of material cases of corruption or interference in the affairs of the state yet – there is only “reasonable suspicion” or rumours running rife in the left-wing and right-wing media. There is no evidence of ideological corrections to the presidential speeches yet, neither are there any statements by representatives of the FIG concerning the fact that they were forced to sponsor the foundations against their will and there are no financial documents confirming the transfer of funds to the personal accounts of Choi Sung-sil.
However, it seems that they are trying to hang all recent scandals and abuses of power on the friend of the President. While a document from WikiLeaks saying that “there are rumours that Park is overly dependent on a person who can be compared with Rasputin”, is quoted not as reference to rumours, but as a proof of some kind.
Park has not given in to pressure (many thought that her TV appearance would be more than an apology and saw her voluntary retirement as well) and remains under fire – the left will try not to miss a chance to dethrone a “symbol of dictatorship”, guilty at least of being the daughter of Pak Chung-hee. For the right, this is not only a chance to drown their opponent in the factional struggle, but also blame the “shaman” (as a scapegoat) for all the failures of government policy, and then, after cutting ties with her, try and enter a new round of the presidential race with a new image. It is the conservatives who can remind her of the resumption of the fight against corruption and the Eurasian Initiative, with which she tried to at least partially get out from under American influence and improve relations with Moscow and Beijing.
It is no coincidence that the former leader of the ruling Saenuri Party, Kim Moo-song (a strict conservative, far more to the right than the President) demanded that the President leave the party. He stressed that the head of the state, as the guarantor of the Constitution, was ruling the country, violating the constitutional principles and values, and demanded the formation of a national unity government within the shortest possible time. The members of the Supreme Council of the party protested against such a demand, but its leader, Lee Jong-hyun (ex-supporter of Park), announced that he would soon step down. He only asked for a little time to help the head of the state to deal with the situation.
In this context, it’s important to remember that the Park Geun-hye’s “lean to the right” was not caused by irrational reasons but by the general political situation, which included North Korea’s provocative position (i.e. its fourth nuclear test, which needed a clear response), the categorical rejection by the left of all the president’s actions (which excluded the opportunity of any dialogue for the implementation of a moderate programme) and significant pressure from the right wing.
So, let’s wait and see how events will unfold, since according to statements made by government representatives, the authorities will do everything to try and settle the scandal.
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.”