The ousting of blue blooded Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea, marks a major turning point for a country in crisis.
This week was eventful. WikiLeaks revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has developed some sophisticated hacking tools. The agency can now eavesdrop, using smartphone, tablet, laptop and television microphones. Weeping Angel, Ricky Bobby, Starving Weasel, Maddening Whispers and Snowy Owl are some of, what the BBC calls, “the weird names the CIA gives its hacking tools.”
This was a tragic week for wildlife. Satao, one of the last “giant tusker” elephants, was killed in Kenya. Giant tuskers or big tuskers are African bull elephants with ivory tusks large enough to brush the grass on the ground. They are some of the most magnificent animals alive and merely 30 of them now walk the earth. In France, poachers shot dead Vince, a 4-year old white rhino, in his enclosure in Thoiry Zoo. Rhinos have been slaughtered for long in Africa and Asia for their horns. This was the first time poachers killed a rhino in a European zoo. Neither conservation efforts nor the bans on trade of ivory and rhino horns are enough to protect these majestic animals from the rapacious two-legged species, Homo sapiens sapiens.
Two other events were noteworthy.
First, Bolivian President Evo Morales signed into law a bill that nearly doubles the area for coca production. Under current legislation, 12,000 acres is set aside for coca production. The new law increases this area to 22,000 acres. Coca is used to make cocaine, but it is also traditionally used in the Andes to fight altitude sickness as well as suppress hunger, thirst and pain. Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, once grew coca himself.
Second, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a thumping majority in Uttar Pradesh, India’s biggest state with over 200 million people. With the opposition in disarray, this strengthens the populist prime minister and puts him in pole position for a second term in 2019.
Yet the event that holds center stage this week is the ousting from office of Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president who has been enmeshed in scandal.
MURDER, MEDIUM, MAMMON, MANIPULATION AND MORE MURDER
South Korea’s presidential scandal has been going on for months even though the world has taken little note of it. In a story titled, “Fall of the Queen,” Singapore’s The Straits Times examines the life and times of South Korea’s female president, bringing to light the anatomy of a scandal that has brought the country to a standstill.
Park entered public life when her mother was assassinated on August 15, 1974. The North Korean spy had intended to kill Park’s father, South Korea’s then-dictator Park Chung-hee. This military strongman had seized power in 1961 and ruled his fast-growing country with an iron fist. With her mother dead, Park assumed her role as first lady and was constantly by her father’s side.
It is during these years that Park got to know Choi Tae-min, a self-proclaimed pastor who set up a cult-like group called The Church of Eternal Life. The pastor told Park that he was receiving messages from her mother and offered to be a medium. As this charismatic man became Park’s “spiritual adviser,” his fifth and apparently favorite daughter became Park’s close confidante. Choi Soon-sil was four years younger to Park and a mere undergraduate. She was often seen at Park’s side even as her father began patriotic organizations in the name of Park and profited handsomely from them. Father Choi’s influence grew to such a degree that he earned the sobriquet, the “Korean Rasputin.”
As per numerous news organizations and the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), Choi used his proximity to Park to peddle influence and secure bribes. This was a time when Park’s father prosecuted, jailed and tortured dissidents with wanton abandon. For many, the influence of the Korean Rasputin in the presidential Blue House was the proverbial last straw.
One of those alarmed by the state of affairs was Kim Jae Gyu. He was the big boss of the KCIA. In 1979, Kim assassinated General Park. In his trial, Kim claimed that part of his motivation for assassination came from the general’s “failure to prevent Choi Tae-min’s corrupt activities and keep him away from his daughter.”
RISE AND FALL OF THE DAUGHTERS
Once her father was killed, Park disappeared from public view. She kept the Chois close. As per her siblings, too close.
In 1990, Park’s younger sister and younger brother filed a petition to the then president claiming that Father Choi was manipulating their sister and alienating them from her. More importantly, they alleged that Father Choi was illicitly profiting from a foundation set up to commemorate their parents. Needless to say, the petition was to no avail. Park’s relations with her siblings cooled and she became ever more reliant on the Chois.
In fact, rumors abound that Park had a romantic liaison with Father Choi and they have an illegitimate child who is safely kept out of public view. It helps that Father Choi was a bit of a ladies man who married six times. Needless to say, Park continues to deny all rumors of a liaison with him.
Father Choi died aged 82 in 1994, but Park continued to remain close to Daughter Choi. In 1998, after the 1997 Asian financial crisis devastated South Korea, Park entered politics. Her rise in South Korea’s highly patriarchal society and male-dominated politics was meteoric. Between 2004 and 2006, her party won all 40 elections and by-elections. In 2007, she bid for the presidency but Lee Myung-bak, a former CEO of Hyundai, won her party’s nomination. Park was not to be denied for long though and was elected president in 2012.
Like many politicians before and since, Park came to power promising change. She “vowed to improve the economy by boosting creativity and entrepreneurship.” Park pledged to build a happier country based on rule of law and meritocracy. The new leader also assured her citizens that she would push forth “national reconciliation” with North Korea, while maintaining a “strong deterrent” to its rogue northern neighbor. She declared that she would “build up the capital of trust” by ensuring that her administration would remain “clean, transparent and competent.” Unfortunately, Park did not institute any major reforms once in power.
Instead, she was blamed for systemic failures such as the 2014 Sewol ferry tragedy in which 304 people, including 250 schoolchildren, lost their lives.
Sewol became a metaphor for all that was wrong with South Korea. The operating company had added superstructure to the ship’s hull and removed ballast water to load extra cargo. When Sewol heeled over near an island, the seas were calm. Fishing boats, coastguard boats and even helicopters soon surrounded the ship.
All this was to no avail because the captain had abandoned the ship. The crew had told passengers to stay in their cabins instead of proceeding to the open upper decks where they could have been rescued. Many met nightmarish ends and sent out smartphone footage of their final moments. The corruption, top-down culture and opacity that blight South Korea were cruelly captured in Sewol.
The Straits Times reports that Park “received a text message of the accident at 9.24am, followed by a written report at 10.00am.” However, it was only at 5:15pm that Park deigned to show up at the national emergency room. By this time the coast guard, the navy and civilians had worked themselves to death in rescue efforts. The only person who seemed missing was the president herself. To add insult to injury, Park’s first question in the headquarters was woefully ignorant. She demanded to know why the students, who she assumed were wearing life vests, had not been found yet.
Park never recovered from Sewol.
Worse was to follow. Daughter Choi’s husband, Chung Yoon-hoi, had been chief of staff to Park when she was in parliament. Sankei Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, reported that Park was on a romantic tryst with Chung when she was supposed to be directing the Sewol rescue operation. Reports later emerged that Chung “was running the presidential office like a puppet master” and ordering Park’s “secretaries to do his bidding, despite holding no official position.”
In 2016, it emerged that daughter Choi had inappropriate access to government decision making. JTBC, a cable news channel, found a discarded tablet which revealed that Daughter Choi had received 44 speeches. Allegations surfaced of daughter Choi emulating father Choi and using her friendship to pressure South Korean companies to give money to her charities in return for favorable government treatment.
None other than Lee Jae-yong, the heir to the Samsung fortune and its de facto boss, is under the microscope. Prosecutors allege that Lee paid $36 billion to Daughter Choi. He also gave a horse and cash to Daughter Choi’s daughter who is an equestrian champion. Apparently, this investment paid off handsomely. Lee was able to win government support for Samsung’s restructuring.
This scandal blew up just as the South Korean economy was experiencing a painful economic crisis. As Bloomberg reported on November 2, 2016: Samsung was “trying to control the damage from canceling its flagship product,” South Korea’s “largest container shipper went into receivership,” the head of its biggest retailer was “indicted on charges of embezzlement,” and exports were slumping and household debt was rising. Seething South Koreans, suffering from an acute economic downturn, took to the streets. Mass protests and candlelight vigils broke out, calling for Park to step down.
Soon, daughter Choi apologized for “unpardonable crime,” but the “Choi-gate,” as the scandal has come to be known, refused to die down. On December 9, 2016, the South Korean parliament voted by a huge majority to impeach Park. “Choi-gate” soon consumed Daughter Choi too. She found herself in court, “charged with abuse of power and attempted fraud.”
On March 10, South Korea’s constitutional court unanimously and unambiguously upheld the parliamentary vote to impeach Park. She “will immediately forfeit the executive immunity she enjoyed as president, meaning prosecutors can summon, question and possibly arrest her.” South Korea may now be a democracy, but it seems the Chois continue to cast inauspicious dark shadows on the Parks.
Park’s impeachment is a triumph for South Korea’s democracy. The fact that massive protests, impeachment and a court ruling led to the ouster of the president, the indictment of her friend and the prosecution of a billionaire heir should augur well for the future. However, tough times lie ahead as the country gears up for a presidential election.
As the February 26 edition of The World This Week pointed out, North Korea continues to remain troublesome and China cannot seem to control it. In any case, the Middle Kingdom is irate with South Korea for allowing the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield. China fears that THAAD’s powerful radar to detect missiles would penetrate parts of its northeast, allowing the United States to spy on the country’s missile tests. This would greatly undermine Beijing’s nuclear deterrent. Hence, China is turning the economic screws on South Korea with a vengeance.
Any new South Korean leader will have to engage in deft diplomacy with North Korea, China, Japan and the US, balancing both economic and security interests. More importantly, the new president will have to reflect the popular demand for reform. The thousands who came out on the streets want a change to the status quo, and meeting public expectations will be a poisoned chalice for any incoming leader.
Through one prism, South Korea is the great success story of capitalism and democracy. While North Korea remains mired in poverty and under the thumb of the Kim dynasty, South Korea has grown spectacularly, educated its people and developed impressive technologies. In the words of Marcus Noland, this is “the backwater that boomed.” In 1964, the country was poorer than Bolivia and Mozambique. In 2014, its per capita income of nearly $23,000 was more than New Zealand and Spain.
Yet not all is well in this capitalist paradise. Sewol is only a symbol of the crony capitalism that plagues the country. Chaebols, family-run conglomerates, dominate the Korean economy. They are like banyan trees that do not allow entrepreneurs and smaller companies to flourish.
Like much of the world, South Korea is experiencing increasing inequality thanks to “income polarization and a shrinking middle class.” Rising unemployment, a rapidly aging population, social stratification and gender discrimination exacerbate inequality in the country. The stumbling global economy is inflicting further misery on export-oriented South Korea, and Justin Fendos argues that it is poised for disaster.
As if inequality and economic woes were not enough, South Korea has been gripped by extreme materialism over the last few decades. In 2015, Patricia Marx reported in The New Yorker that South Korea was the plastic surgery capital of the world. In 2010, Brian Salsberg and Martine Jae-Eun Shin of McKinsey wrote that, despite the Great Recession, they expected the “love of luxury and peer pressure” to keep Koreans spending on high-end products such as LVMH and Gucci.
Unfortunately, all the shopping does not soothe souls. As The Economist explained in 2014, “South Korea, a dynamo of growth, is also afire with faith.” In 1945, only 2% of Koreans were Christian. That number has risen to 29% in South Korea. Buddhists have been left behind in the battle for souls at a mere 23%. South Korean Christians are particularly devout. The country sends more missionaries abroad than any other country except the US. In fact, apart from military alliance and economic ties, religion now ties the US and South Korea together. Both are highly evangelical countries.
It is this new Americano religiosity that has made South Korea vulnerable to cult leaders like Father Choi. Mega-churches and flashy mansion-dwelling pastors abound. “Choi-gate” may have brought down the president, but it is only the tip of the iceberg of a society that has lost its way. South Korea is at a turning point. The country needs not just a change in leadership, but a serious examination of its deepest values. Only then can tiny impressive South Korea find its feet again.
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Photo Credit: Republic of Korea