On November 4, President Park Geun-hye made her second apology since the public learned that she and members of her cabinet had allowed Choi Soon-sil, an individual not holding a government position, to access classified government information and abuse her close connection with the Blue House to collect enormous sums of funds from corporations for her so-called “charity” foundations. Reports also point to the possibility that Choi’s friendship with the president allowed her to influence key government decisions made under the Park administration. Although it is still unclear just how deep the rabbit hole goes, the evidence revealed thus far of Park’s involvement in allowing private interests to influence the operation of the government shows her administration’s willingness to violate South Korea’s democratic process.
In the view of many South Korean people, the latest revelations of the corruption of the Blue House are a culmination of four years of the Park administration’s undemocratic abuse of power against the will and basic rights of South Korean citizens. The past four years have seen countless neo-authoritarian policies from the Park administration – the unilateral decision to deploy the THAAD missile system in Seongju County and increase militarism in South Korea; the mishandling and continued disruption of investigations into the Sewol Ferry disaster; the detainment and prosecution of those who challenge the administration like labor union leader Han Sang-kyun; the imposition of labor reforms that favor chaebols over workers and farmers; and the ordering of riot police to use excessive force against protesters, which led to the death of farmer and activist Baek Nam-gi. The recent discoveries related to the Park Geun-hye/Choi Soon-sil corruption scandal proved to be a tipping point that pushed the entire country to question the legitimacy of the Park administration’s governance.
With approval ratings at an all-time low (below 9%), Park Geun-hye is taking measures to lessen the damage on her image and deflect pressure from the public. Park’s second public apology on November 4 suggested her willingness to cooperate in an investigation by prosecutors, but Park still shows no intention to resign from the presidential seat. Citizens and many elected officials have been calling for the immediate resignation of Park as the first step in repairing the government.
Park Geun-hye Makes Unilateral Cabinet Changes Amidst Investigation of Corruption
In a desperate attempt to bandage the national crisis, Park Geun-hye decided to reshuffle the presidential cabinet. Additionally, Park nominated Kim Byong-joon, policy adviser for the former Roh Moo-hyun administration, to the position of prime minister to oversee all domestic state affairs. Following the announcement of the Blue House shake-up, Park faced backlash for making a unilateral decision to fill the cabinet and prime minister positions without prior communication with any of the political parties, including the ruling Saenuri Party, of which she is a part. Despite Park’s attempt at reform by appointing a former liberal policy-maker like Kim Byong-joon, her decision is seen as a blatant disregard of the opposition parties’ demand for the formation of a new cabinet through bipartisan consensus.
For Park Geun-hye’s failure to consult the National Assembly or opposition party leaders before appointing the new prime minister and reconstituting her cabinet, major opposition party leaders have come out to demand the immediate resignation of the president. They view Park’s latest move as yet another case of the president’s abuse of her executive power.
Ahn Cheol-soo, former chief of the People’s Party and a presidential candidate, urged the president to resign and denounced her for continuing to control the appointment and management of Blue House personnel while shirking responsibility for corruption and abuse of authority related to the “Choi Soon-sil scandal.”
The mayor of Seoul and possible presidential candidate for the liberal Minjoo Party, Park Won-soon, also demanded the president resign. Park pointed out that the president has lost all trust and credibility with the South Korean people, therefore should have no access to the executive powers normally allotted to the president. He also suggested a major overhaul and change in the executive branch of the government – “Just changing the chief executive will not fundamentally solve this issue although Park is responsible for the crisis.”
Moon Jae-in, a leading liberal candidate for the next presidential election, also criticized Park Geun-hye for rejecting the proposal for appointing new cabinet members through bipartisan agreement. Moon, however, has yet to endorse demands for Park’s resignation and stated, “I understand the public sentiment of wanting president Park to resign… but if possible, I believe that it is the duty of politicians to find solutions within the political arena. If I arrive at the determination that this is impossible, then I will have no choice but to make more extreme demands.”
Investigation Stops Short of Probing Park Geun-hye’s Involvement
On November 2, the Special Investigation Bureau of the Prosecutor General office filed for an official arrest warrant to detain Choi Soon-sil for the duration of the investigation of the government corruption scandal. Critics, however, question the strength of the charges against Choi as well as whether or not the president will face any legal consequence for her role in the scandal.
The arrest warrant filed by the Prosecutor General office charges Choi of involvement in a government official’s abuse of authority. Choi is suspected of being a key figure behind former Senior Presidential Secretary for Economic Affairs Ahn Jong-beom’s abuse of government authority to collect nearly $80 million in corporate donations for the Mir and K-Sports Foundations, alleged fronts for Choi’s embezzlement scheme. The charge against Choi is significantly less than the charges of bribery and extortion, which many had expected she would receive.
The lesser charge could mean a significantly lighter jail sentence for Choi Soon-sil even if she is convicted. The charge could also mean a reduced chance of prosecutors extending the investigation to probe Park Geun-hye’s involvement. With recent testimonies given by Ahn Jong-beom about Park Geun-hye’s active role in steering the corrupt dealings with corporations to raise immense sums of money for Choi’s Mir and K-Sports Foundations, however, prosecutors may have no choice but to investigate the president’s involvement.
Despite evidence that suggests the president’s involvement in the scandal, it is unclear whether the prosecutors intend to include Park Geun-hye in their investigation. According to South Korean law, the president cannot be prosecuted while in office.
100,000 Expected to Mobilize to Demand Park Geun-hye’s Resignation
Over 1,000 civil society groups came together for an emergency assembly to discuss and announce plans for a people’s campaign to oust Park Geun-hye from the presidential office. The groups called for 100,000 people to gather on November 5 in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Plaza for a mass demonstration to demand the resignation of President Park.
The emergency assembly yielded the following consensus – “There is no solution other than the ouster of the Park Geun-hye administration.” In addition, the civil society groups agreed that all those responsible in any way for the corruption in the Blue House should step down and be investigated and held legally accountable.
Among the groups in the emergency assembly was the coordinating committee of the People Power Mobilization coalition, a broad united front led by workers and farmers. The lead coordinators of the People Power Mobilization hope to carry the momentum of the spontaneous demonstrations this week and next week into the mass People Power demonstration planned for November 12.
The Korean Federation of Trade Unions (KCTU) announced that its members will strike if Park Geun-hye is not vacated from the presidential office. This is significant as political strikes are illegal in South Korea. Despite the risk, the KCTU says it is resolved to force the president to step down. Union leaders plan to focus on informing and educating members and the general public about the current crisis and its roots.
In addition to Park Geun-hye’s resignation, some demand the entire ruling party be held accountable for being an accomplice to the president and other Blue House officials in their corrupt activities. On November 3, representatives of “Dream of the People,” a newly formed political organization, held a press conference and demonstration demanding the whole Saenuri Party be held accountable for the corruption that unfolded in the Blue House during Park Geun-hye’s rule.
A growing portion of the ruling Saenuri Party has been distancing itself from the Park administration and even calling for the president to be investigated. While some see this as an instance of the right and the left coming together to bring down corruption in the Blue House, many progressives question the intent behind conservative politicians pointing fingers at the scandal-ridden administration.
A representative of “Dream of the People,” National Assemblyperson Yoon Jong-oh, stated, “If the people (Saenuri Party assemblymen) closest to the administration did not know of the Choi Soon-sil scandal, it shows their incompetence. But if they did know, are they not accomplices?”
In regards to the apparent division within the conservative Saenuri Party, Yoon added, “By creating an internal split of ‘pro-Park vs. anti-Park’ camps and stirring up conflict to put the focus on calling for resignation [only] of the leadership, it shows that [the Saenuri Party] is aiming to avoid taking any responsibility and deceiving the citizens yet again.”
Overseas Koreans are also joining the fight to demand the resignation of Park Geun-hye. On November 4 through 6, Koreans residing in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, and England will mobilize to demand an end to the Park Geun-hye administration and restoration of democracy in South Korea.
By ZoominKorea staff
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