South Korean leader digs in against rising calls for impeachment

Park’s four-decade relationship with her friend Choi has enthralled the country and brought the protesters out on the streets, seeking her impeachment

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FILE PHOTO - South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party attends her election campaign rally in Suwon, south of Seoul, South Korea December 17, 2012. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
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She is facing impeachment and prosecution over allegations of corruption and influence-peddling. One of her advisers is being likened to Rasputin by a shrill South Korean news media. Increasingly large crowds of protesters have taken to the streets, demanding her resignation.

President Park Geun-hye has been paralysed by a bizarre scandal and an escalating public backlash that could make her the first South Korean leader to be removed from office since her father, military dictator Park Chung-hee, was assassinated in 1979.

But even as her approval rating slips into the low single digits, Park has been defiant, meaning that South Korea’s worst political crisis in decades is likely to drag on for months, leaving her conservative government distracted and in disarray at a time when it is grappling with a slowing economy and rising household debt.

Moreover, with reports that the cold conflict over North Korea’s nuclear missile programme may be heating up as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office in Washington, the standoff in Seoul could leave the United States with a seriously hobbled ally.

Last Saturday, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Seoul for what is believed to be the largest protest against a South Korean president. The protest capped a dramatic week in which a scandal involving a shadowy adviser to Park moved inexorably towards an impeachment vote in the National Assembly and government prosecutors accused her of criminal conspiracy — the first time a sitting South Korean president has been identified as a criminal suspect. Two top aides, meanwhile, have talked of resigning, saying that they were unable to serve amid the storm of the scandal.

Park has remained cloistered in the presidential Blue House, denying the charges against her through a spokesman and refusing to allow prosecutors to question her. “The president has no intention of stepping down, the people are fighting on the streets and the government is paralysed,” said Woo Sang-ho, the floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party. “We have no option but to impeach her.”

An impeachment vote, expected early next month, requires a two-thirds majority to pass. If the opposition parties remain united, they will need fewer than 30 votes from Park’s governing Saenuri Party to impeach her. An impeachment vote would have to be ratified by the Constitutional Court.

One prominent defection came last week when Kim Moo-sung, a former party chairman and Park’s presidential campaign manager, vowed to impeach her, saying she had “betrayed the people and our party.”

The alleged conspiracy revolves around a secret presidential adviser and confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who was indicted on November 20 on charges of exploiting her influence with Park to gain access to confidential government documents and to force businesses to donate $69 million (Dh253.78 million) to two foundations she controlled. Prosecutors said Park was an accomplice in the scheme, directing her aides to help Choi shake down major corporations like Samsung and Hyundai.

But it is Park’s four-decade relationship with Choi, who has been described as a “shaman fortuneteller” by opposition politicians, that has enthralled South Koreans.

Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, founder of the Church of Eternal Life and a self-proclaimed messiah, had been a mentor to Park. According to a report by the Korean intelligence agency, he approached her after her mother was assassinated in 1974, telling her that her dead mother had spoken to him in his dreams. The report said that Choi Tae-min had cultivated his influence with Park, then the dictator’s daughter, to solicit bribes and accumulate a family fortune. According to the November 20 indictment, his daughter continued the family business.

Choi Soon-sil’s former driver told the Segye Ilbo newspaper last week that he had delivered a suitcase of cash from the Choi family to bankroll Park’s run for Parliament in the late 1990s. During her presidential campaign in 2012 and even after her inauguration, Choi Soon-sil edited Park’s speeches, Park has acknowledged.

After Park took office in 2013, Choi Soon-sil used her connections to force a Seoul university to accept her daughter and give her good grades even though she hardly attended classes, Education Ministry officials said. In 2014, Park instructed an aide to ask Hyundai Motor Co to sign a contract with a parts supplier owned by a friend of Choi Soon-sil, prosecutors said in their indictment of Choi. Choi later collected $44,000 in kickbacks from her friend. In February, again acting on Park’s orders, the aide asked Hyundai to hire Choi’s advertising agency. Choi’s company earned $780,000 from the account.

Park was accused of leaking secret government documents to Choi Soon-sil, who did not have security clearance and had no experience in government or policymaking. She shared with Choi classified information on things like appointments to top government jobs and where the government planned to build a sports complex. Two of Park’s former aides were also indicted.

As early as 2013, officials tried to raise alarms about Park’s relationship with Choi Soon-sil, only to be demoted, fired or even imprisoned. A police detective who worked in the president’s office filed a report in 2014, accusing relatives and associates of Choi of meddling in state affairs. The detective was reassigned, and was then charged with leaking government documents, convicted and sent to prison.

Park has publicly apologised twice for the scandal in televised speeches, saying that she had let her guard down with a trusted friend. But she has not said she knew of any extortion, and her office last week called the prosecutors’ findings groundless. “We don’t think the prosecutors’ investigation has been fair or politically neutral,” said her spokesman, Jung Youn-kuk.

Party loyalists have banded together to thwart the impeachment effort. Lee Jung-hyun, the party’s current chairman, warned against breaking ranks: “Even if you jump off because the ship is tilting, the only thing that awaits you is a sea of death.” He also compared party members wanting to impeach Park to “Judas.”

Still, the prosecutors’ revelations alienated even some of Park’s staunchest conservative allies, many of whom saw her as a replica of her father, who was revered for leading the country out of poverty. Critics say her administration has been a poor copy, mimicking some of her father’s authoritarian tendencies and lacking his effectiveness and policy drive.

She has shunned one-on-one briefings from her top aides and held only one news conference a year. Her perceived aloofness came under fire after the MV Sewol ferry disaster in 2014, in which more than 300 people died. She emerged from her residence seven hours after she was first informed of the accident. At the same time, she adopted a hard-line policy against North Korea and agreed to base US defensive missiles in South Korea, angering China.

North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests and launched more than 20 ballistic missiles this year, with the professed goal of developing a weapon capable of hitting the US with a nuclear warhead.

Although they are disillusioned with Park, many South Korean conservatives also fear that her travails have increased the chances of a progressive candidate winning the next presidential election and reversing or softening South Korea’s policy on the North.

At this point, Park’s fate may hang on timing as much as the weight of the evidence. If an impeachment bill passes, her presidential powers will be suspended while the Constitutional Court has six months to rule on its validity. Park’s five-year term ends in February 2018.

Analysts say she is buying time by stonewalling the investigation, while hoping for the uproar to subside or for the National Assembly or the right-leaning Constitutional Court to vote against impeaching her.

Running out the clock on impeachment will not necessarily spare her from prosecution, however. Already identified by prosecutors as a criminal suspect, she could be arrested the day she leaves office and loses her presidential immunity.

That does not appear to be a privilege she will give up voluntarily.

“She will sit tight, even if the entire 50 million people of South Korea turn out to deny her presidency and demand her resignation,” former prime minister Kim Jong-pil, Park’s relative, told the newsmagazine Sisa Journal this month. “Once she gets bullheaded, no one can budge her.”

— New York Times News Service

Choe Sang-hun is a Pullitzer Prize-winning South Korean journalist.

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