Korea on the Brink

Analysis: President Park's spectacular fall means nothing good for U.S.-Korea relations

Protesters gather and occupy major streets in the city center for a rally against South Korean President Park Geun-hye on December 3
Protesters gather and occupy major streets in the city center for a rally against South Korean President Park Geun-hye on December 3 / Getty Images
March 17, 2017

The speed of now-former South Korean President Park Geun-hye's spectacular fall from power took many foreign observers by surprise. After all, the initial reports last autumn that were to snowball into a generational political crisis seemed pretty bland. The daughter of the president's family friend and "spiritual adviser" Choi Soon-sil had apparently been accepted into a prestigious women's university as a result of political pressure. An "equestrian scholarship" had been invented as a pretext for getting her in despite comparatively weak grades. Students at the school—not fans of the conservative president, unsurprisingly—were protesting.

The situation was not ideal as a matter of clean government and university administration, to be sure—but also not too far off from the kind of garden variety moral compromise that can be detected at most elite institutions of higher learning, in any country. But man-oh-man, did the story not stop there. Soon there were allegations that Choi, the spiritual adviser (to critics, more of a "cult leader" or "Rasputin") had been shaking down business executives and profiting off of her access to the president in impressively diverse and creative ways. Verifying her level of influence on President Park, a tablet computer containing Choi's mark-ups of the president's speeches was turned up by Korean reporters. Choi Soon-sil-gate had legs.

Park's defenders took an "if-only-the-Czar-knew" approach to the president's defense. (They still do.) Vast crowds in Seoul regularly took to the streets. Park's poll numbers plunged into the single digits. In December, she was impeached; last Friday the courts upheld the impeachment, and she was officially removed from office. Prosecutors have summoned her for questioning next week. A special presidential election is now scheduled for May 9.

Park was not a popular president even before the current crisis. Elected in 2012, she had been damaged by a series of scandals, including one that broke in 2013 and involved the country's intelligence service having generated over a million tweets to aid Park in the 2012 elections. The following year the horrifying sinking of the Sewol ferry killed 304 passengers, most of whom were high school students. Park was widely perceived to have handled the disaster poorly, in a political moment with striking parallels to Katrina and President George W. Bush.

But the real foundations of the Choi scandal's surprising potency lay much, much deeper in history. President Park's father, Park Chung-hee, had seized control of South Korea in a military coup in 1961, and ruled until his assassination in 1979. Choi Soon-sil's father, Choi Tae-min, had played a similar role of spiritual confidant and powerful influence for the elder Park, and had been crucial in his daughter's upbringing, especially considering that not only her father but also her mother had been assassinated (the latter in 1974.)

For the South Korean left—and, as the scandal grew, the country's political center as well—the disclosures of collusion and self-dealing involving a second-generation Park-Choi axis were akin to poking on an exposed nerve.

Conservatives prefer to remember the elder Park's regime as a time of wealth and relative stability, during which the government sponsored a designated group of conglomerates called "chaebols"—think Samsung, Hyundai, and LG—whose explosive growth and eventual global prominence dragged the nation out of poverty and earned it a role in last century's "Asian miracle." For the left, however, the period is remembered for its military dictatorship and the oligarchic influence of the families that controlled the conglomerates, feathering their nests without needing to be bothered by anything resembling democratic accountability. Recent revelations stemming from the Choi scandal that involved President Park's role in a merger and management succession controversy at Samsung further accentuated the sense that the secretive relationships between her family and the chaebols were alive, well, and determinative of her policies.

Park's ouster may well be a blow for good government—and it is certainly a credit to South Korea's still young democracy that the impeachment has proceeded without a rupture in the nation's constitutional order. Unfortunately from the American perspective, that's it for good news. The next president, whoever it will be, is virtually certain to be less friendly to the United States and more dovish towards North Korea. The happy moment of a coalition of pro-American governments in Northeast Asia (Abe in Japan, Park in Korea, and Tsai in Taiwan) was brief, and it is over.

The candidate currently leading in the South Korean polls, Moon Jae-in, comes from the liberal opposition and is outspoken in his skepticism of the United States and his support of something like the Sunshine Policy towards Pyongyang, which his party pursued from 1998 to 2008. In second place is Ahn Hee-jung, who has a reputation for being more pragmatic and centrist than Moon. He is currently behind Moon by 15 points in polls, and has to run against him for his party's nomination. President Park's party has yet to produce a frontrunner for its nominating process, and, to be frank, may as well not bother.

America's long-planned and controversial deployment of a sophisticated air defense system to South Korea called "THAAD" began (somewhat by surprise) last week, on what appears to be a timeline accelerated in part by Korean politics and the likely accession to the presidency of the Korean left. The deployment will be complete by summer, and substantially in place even by the time a new president takes office this spring. Like entitlements or government agencies, such deployments are much easier to stop before they begin than they are to roll back once in place. Little else in the years to come is likely to be easy.

Published under: North Korea , South Korea