Keeping my promise, this Daily Update will run a special analysis of the most recent news surrounding Park and Choi-gate. (All days are reported in South Korean time)
The Path to Resignation: Park’s Influence Scandal
President Park Guen-hye has been at the center of a massive influence-peddling scandal involving one of her closest confidants, Choi Soon-sil. On Monday, and into Tuesday, the scandal claimed a wide set of victims as the investigation continues. This will look at the events which took place on Monday and Tuesday, providing a little analysis into the situation.
Tuesday’s main event was a gathering of business leaders for a parliamentary probe. In attendance was Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin, CJ Group Chairman Sohn Kyoung-shik, Hyundai Chung Mong-koo, LG Group Chairman Koo Bon-moo, Hanhwa Group Chairman Kim Seung-youn, and Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Yang-ho (Korea Herald). 18 lawmakers from each side of the aisle took turns asking the heads questions. The hearing was the first time in 28 years that major conglomerate heads were summoned to a parliamentary investigation. Many of the companies were summoned to discuss large donations made to two foundations established by Choi Soon-sil.
The hearing started at 10am and was broadcast on live television. Many of the executives denied that Choi threatened compliance for donations. Samsung Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong said, “President Park said if corporations support the development of culture and sports, it would be for the economy and tourism,” adding that he was embarrassed by the situation and was appearing with a heavy heart (Voice of America). Lee then outlined concrete steps for Samsung’s future by promising to disband the Cooperate Strategy Office, a powerful aspect to Samsung Group set up by his grandfather, founding chairman Lee Byung-chul (Korea Times). The other executives distanced themselves from Choi and her daughter, dressage athlete Chung Yoo-ra (Korea Times). Despite the presence of other major business conglomerates, the probe focused mainly on Samsung, since investigations have shown the company received funding from the National Pension Service (NPS) [Yonhap].
Though an important step in the investigation, the hearing does not seem to have surfaced a “smoking gun” linking the companies directly to Choi. Some companies even refused to comply with the demands of the Blue House and Choi. CJ Entertainment Chairman Sohn Kyong-shik said the company rejected the idea to hire Cha Eun-taek as a visual director despite a push to do so by the Choi and the Blue House (Voice of America). Even without a major revelation from this hearing, evidence of influence-peddling and abuse of power – a charge levied on Choi Soon-sil – still pervades the investigation and most likely will be a major point in the impeachment motion.
President Park, while the hearing was underway, met with Saenuri lawmakers to discuss her future and the future of the country, and contemplated holding a fourth press conference to outline her plan to resign in April (Korea Herald). However, Saenuri Floor Leader Chung Jin-shik spoke at the Blue House. The lawmaker indicated that Park would face impeachment. Other Saenuri lawmakers also showed interest in the forward movement of the impeachment motion (Korea Herald). This breaks with President Park’s previous speeches, which were seen mainly as a stall tactic. The motion to impeach Park will go to a vote on Friday. If passed, the motion would immediately suspend Park’s presidential powers while the Constitutional Court will have 180 days to render a verdict on the motion (New York Times; Washington Post). If the motion passes, Park will become the first democratic president in South Korea to be impeached, and the second to face impeachment – Roh Moo-hyun faced impeachment in 2004, but the court deemed his violations to minor and rescinded the motion. If Park’s impeachment is held up in the court, an emergency election will be triggered within 60 days. If the impeachment motion passes, the opposition parties may have a greater chance of winning the election since the Saenuri Party will not have enough time to separate itself from Park (New York Times).
Finally, the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, dressage athlete Chung Yoo-ra, also faced harsh punishment. On Friday, Ehwa University announced its decision to expel Chung and ban her re-admission into the university (Korea Times). On Tuesday, Seoul’s Education Office announced it was formally canceling Chung’s high school diploma after an investigation of Sunhwa Arts School – the middle school Chung attended – and Chungdam High School revealed she was granted preferential treatment throughout the school year (Korea Herald); Chung had missed 141 days of her senior year – South Korean law regulates that a student must attend 129 of 193 days to graduate. The office said it will change her admission record to reflect her actual admission record and was rescinding any awards she won (Korea Herald). These two decisions will leave Chung, at 19 years old, with only a middle school diploma and no entrance into college.
A second hearing is being held on Wednesday, in attendance were top aides of Park and other officials who have been indicted during the scandal. Choi Soon-sil, however, was not present at the hearing and had previously cited health concerns for her lack of participation in the parliamentary motions of the investigation (Korea Herald). Unlike the first hearing, the second may reveal more information relating to Park’s involvement in the case. At the time of writing, the second parliamentary hearing is in session.
The scandal has mired South Korean politics on a domestic and international level. Park has lost any and all credibility and legitimization as a leader, limiting her influence in any aspect of policy. Domestic intentions are set on recovering the highest office in the Korea, while other issues go under the radar. For example, a draft of the state-authored history textbooks for middle and high schoolers were revealed on Monday and on Tuesday a South Korean appeals court held up the decision to reject a gay couple’s appeal over same-sex marriage (Joogang Daily; Yonhap). The state textbooks drew controversy in November of 2015 and will be in use by students in March of 2017. On the international level, the lack of a presidential authority has made preparing for a Trump presidency very difficult; Park has only had one phone call with Trump, while Shinzo Abe was able to hop on a plane and met with the president-elect of the United States in his New York tower. It also hinders any chance for South Korea to react in the case of a North Korean provocation. The final foreign policy success for Park will be the passing of an intelligence sharing pact with Japan to counter North Korea. South Korea will only continue to be politically stalled for as long as the scandal drags out and it appears Park is willing to fight till the bitter demise of her administration.