While various prominent politicians in the US, who shall remain nameless, are seeminly made out of Teflon when it comes to policy-peddling scandals, South Korea is less lucky and, as the WSJ reports, South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye has accepted the resignation of her chief of staff and four other senior aides, following public outcry over the influence of a friend of Geun-hye’s in state affairs. The move comes after the president’s public approval ratings plunged to historic lows and thousands of street protesters called for her resignation Saturday after she said recently that her friend, Choi Soon-sil, had helped her prepare speeches early in her presidential term.
The two women have been friends for more than 40 years and became connected through Ms. Choi’s father, who created a religious cult and was close to Ms. Park’s father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee. The cult connection in Ms. Choi’s family has increased public suspicions of her motives.
So wait, someone else writing the president’s speeches, and people riot over that? Americans, used to a far greater degree of drama in recent months would merely gloss over, as they would over the allegation by a South Korean broadcaster that Ms. Choi was also given access to confidential government documents, based on files it retrieved from a tablet computer that it says it recovered from an office she used. In a South Korean newspaper interview, Ms. Choi, who has no position in government, denied accessing material other than the speeches.
No really, please stop us when this “scandal” which threatens to overthrow the South Korean administration reminds readers of something that has kept America up for the past few months.
Oh, and South Korea’s scandal also involves, drumroll, “charitable foundations.”
According to the WSJ, Choi, 60, who is also the subject of an investigation by prosecutors into possible corruption at two charitable foundations, returned to South Korea from London on Sunday morning. Her lawyer told reporters she would “actively respond” to prosecutors questions.
The crisis is the biggest Ms. Park has faced since high-profile resignations in government and an overhaul of state agencies following the sinking of a South Korean ferry in 2014 that she said was partly due to failures of government oversight.
In what may be a preview of things to come to the US, opposition politicians have called for a thorough investigation into the scandal, but haven’t called for Ms. Park’s impeachment.
Analysts say it is unlikely Ms. Park will resign unless the crisis escalates. But the furor will likely accelerate the start of her so-called ‘lame duck’ period, when her own political powers are diminished ahead of a presidential election at the end of next year. South Korean presidents serve a five-year term and are barred from running for re-election
Sadly for Park, if America is any example of how deep the rot goes, the crisis will certainly escalate.
Furthermore, in a peculiar twist, the presidential crisis may impact US diplomatic strategy in the region. According to the Eurasia Group, the crisis will make it harder for Ms. Park to push through economic initiatives, such as labor-market reforms, and could potentially impact existing policy plans like the deployment of an advanced U.S. missile-defense shield next year.
While Park remains in power, her staffers are getting the axe. The resignations of Ms. Park’s senior staff come after she requested they offer to quit, a process that is common in South Korea to show the government is taking responsibility for criticism directed at it. A presidential spokesman said the moves were made “in light of the current situation,” and declined to provide further explanation. Park hasn’t spoken about the case publicly since making a nationally televised apology Tuesday for sharing her speeches with Choi.
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And then, the final similarity to that oddly “similar scandal” taking place in the US: On Sunday, prosecutors looking into Ms. Choi confiscated computers and documents from officials at the presidential office.
Yet one place where the US and South Korean differ, is in the media’s response. South Korean newspapers have been full of further accusations about the influence of Ms. Choi over Ms. Park in recent days, fanning public anger.
Another difference: the public’s response. While in the US there is much indignation over said “similar scandal” most of it is confined to Twitter and various online venues; meanwhile in South Korea several thousand protesters occupied the main square in downtown Seoul on Saturday evening to call for Ms. Park to resign. Some wore masks of Ms. Choi and mimicked the actions of a puppeteer, with strings connected to other demonstrators wearing masks of Ms. Park.
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The WSJ concludes that scandals over alleged corruption or other wrongdoing are common among South Korean presidents, often late in their terms. Ms. Park’s public approval rating has sunk to about 14% in one poll, similar to the levels of other recent presidents, all of whom completed their terms. On the other hand, Ms. Park’s public approva rating would be around 80% after sampling a group of 5 “random” respondents, all of whom received kickbacks and benefits from her corruption. Furthermore in the US, a few donations to Park’s charitable foundations, a few kickbacks, and all would be forgiven.
It almost makes us wonder which is the greater banana republic: South Korea or the US…