South Korea’s Political Scandal

On December 19, 2012, the 18th South Korean Presidential Election was held under the first-past-the-post system, a system of direct plurality voting as opposed to the electoral college system used in the United States. This hotly contested election led to the narrow victory of Park Geun-hye of Saenuri Party over Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party. According to the Korea Times, Park won with 51.6% of the 30.7 million total votes, compared to Moon’s 48%. The results served as a referendum on each of the candidate’s background; a vast generational rift is clearly evident in the distribution of votes between the two candidates with Park receiving overwhelming support from those in their 40s and beyond and Moon garnering most of her votes from those in their 20s and 30s. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former Korean President Park Chung-hee, an autocratic ruler who seized power in a military coup 51 years ago. During his 18 years of presidency, Park Chung-hee sought to modernize the rural South Korean economy and brought in a period of rapid economic growth through the New Community Movement (Saemaul Undong). Older citizens’ memories of this success clearly played a role in their decision as they almost entirely wound up supporting his daughter Park in hopes of her doing the same and leading Korea out of its stagnant economy at that time. Amidst the cheering crowd at her inauguration, which marks the first time South Korea has had a female president, Park announced “I believe the nation’s passion to overcome crisis and revive the economy has brought this victory. I will not forget your trust in me.” The next five years have revealed not only the complete falsehood in that claim, but also the fact that these may not even be the words of the president herself.

        The political scandal plaguing South Korea revolves around the tight friendship between Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil. President Park’s heavy reliance on the political advice of Choi, an individual with no political background or ranking, for small to significant issues rest at the epicenter of this scandal. In the eyes of the people that elected her, she has not only neglected the trust they bestowed upon her, but also betrayed the people and her duty as the president by giving someone as inexperienced as Choi powerful, behind-the-scenes control of the nation.

Of course there were numerous word and suspicion regarding the president’s actions but the South Korean government denied any accusations, dismissing them as unfounded and absurd claims. However, there are mountains of evidence that actually lend support to these accusations For instance, the establishment of Mir and K-Sports foundations took only a single day to get approval for their establishment from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (when it would usually take about a month). Further, the two foundations asked Korea-based multinational corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, and SK to fund the new foundations and were able to raise about 80 billion won ($70 million) in just two months. Word was also leaked that Choi’s private company, the Blue K, had been using phony business transactions to steal funds and funnel them to Choi’s ghost companies in Germany. The government still refused to take action concerning these allegations.

The scandal finally broke on October 27, when the Korean cable TV network JTBC received a single tip that wound up blowing the lid off the whole affair. Choi, who had business in Germany, had ordered someone to discard a box full of supplies. A JTBC reporter located it, dug through it, and found a crucial computer tablet. The device happened to be the very evidence needed to prove the wrongdoing of Park and Choi; it contained drafts of Park’s presidential speeches with edits marked in red by Choi along with chat messages that revealed Choi’s influence on Park’s decisions. Further search revealed that Choi, who has no official government position, had illegal access to confidential documents and information for the president. When Choi returned to Seoul two days later, she was detained by police. On November 20, she was formally indicted on a number of charges, including extortion and abuse of power.

The revelation of the scandal jeopardized the position of President Park as well. Since she cannot be detained and jailed as punishment until her term is over, numerous citizens have attempted to take matters into their own hands. Sporadic protests eventually developed into huge candlelight rallies that take place every Saturday at the Gwanghwamun Plaza. The most recently rally actually comprised about 1.6 million people.

Few Loomis students who went back to Korea over Thanksgiving break attended this rally. However, those who did have their own opinions concerning the whole matter. Jason Lee ’19 remarked that despite the huge crowds involved, he was surprised and proud to observe that “there was no violence involved.” He remarked that the whole affair has actually made him more interested in politivs and that “I learned why I had to be concerned about politics as a Korean citizen.” Jeewon Shin’17 also attended the rally and was touched when she saw people helping clean up the city so that the city janitors did not have extra work, saying “I think that this goes to show how considerate and polite people were even in midst of dispute and anger.” She further claimed that “As a Korean, [I felt like] it was an obligation to help fill the amount of people there so that the government can finally open their eyes and see so many people [taking a stand]”. Finally, Dylan Koo ’19 showed strong opinion on this topic as he feels the “government betrayed the citizens’ trust.” After participating in the rally as well, he claimed to have been very surprised by the “peaceful nature of the rally of the people’s words and actions, unprecedented in previous rallies in Korea.” Moreover, he deemed the candlelight rally an “amazing feat that illustrates the power in the citizens’ voices.”

The political scandal in Korea and the citizens’ reactions can perhaps be directly tied to the quote Dr. Culbert shared: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” All three students who attended the rally reflected on the inspiration the movement has stirred within them. Indeed, had the citizens been more vigilant during the presidential election in 2012 and had there been more efforts to question the government earlier in Park’s term, perhaps this incident may not have had such a large impact as it does now. However, one fact is clear: Korean citizens are actively reacting to the government’s failure to protect and work for the people and the country. Millions are gathering weekly to conduct peaceful protests. These actions highlight not only the advanced mindset the society has cultivated over the years, but also the necessity of awareness and interest in both domestic and international affairs order to create a world in which one can voice opinions freely, correct each other, and cooperate with one another to overcome hardships.

The political scandal plaguing South Korea revolves around the tight friendship between Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil. President Park’s heavy reliance on Choi, an individual with no political background or ranking, in deciding every sort of  political decisions ranging from small to the most influential lies at the center of the scandal. To the eyes of the people who have elected her, she has not only neglected the trust the people have given her during the election, but also betrayed the people and her duty as the president by giving Choi, an individual of no political standing, powerful behind-the-scenes control of the nation. //

The tight bond between Park and Choi’s family can be traced to 1974 when Park was just 22 years old and Park’s father was the president. Due to Park Chung-hee’s controversial leadership, an assassination attempt was made against him and instead resulted in the death of his wife, Park Geun-hye’s mother.

Shortly after her death, Choi’s father Choi Tae-min reached out to young Park who was in a trauma. The elder Choi, 40 years her senior, was a religious man who had established a cult-like Christian sect called the Church of Eternal Life. He’d been married six times, had multiple pseudonyms and claimed he could heal people. ////

With motives to gain Park’s trust and exploit her trust, status, and wealth, the elder Choi repeatedly claimed to be able to see the deceased Park’s mother’s spirits through dreams. Park instantly fell prey to this bait and from then the relationship between her and the Choi family was cemented. When Park’s father was killed five years later, Park relied even more on Choi. Essentially, Choi had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and also accumulated enormous wealth for himself and his children by taking advantage of Park’s influence. Once Choi Tae-min dies, his daughter Choi Soon-sil took over his role of being the spiritual guide and protectorate of Park.

This 40 year relationship has continued and even strengthened during Park’s presidency as she continued to rely on Soon-sil for governmental decisions, crucial political speeches, and even her personal wardrobe and attire for the day.

Of course there were numerous word and suspicion regarding the president’s actions but whenever accusations were made, the Blue House denied completely claiming the accusations as farcical charges without evidence. For instance, the establishment of Mir and K-Sports foundations took only a single day to get approval for their establishment from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism (when it would usually take about a month). Further, the two foundations asked Korea-based multinational corporations like Samsung, Hyundai, and SK to fund the new foundations and were able to raise about 80 billion won ($70 million) in just two months. Word broke out from the inside that Choi’s private company, the Blue K, had been using phony business transactions to steal funds and funnel them to Choi’s ghost companies in Germany. The Blue House, however, adamantly refused to admit.

The scandal broke out, however, when, on October 27, the Korean cable TV network JTBC got the scoop of the century: a discarded tablet computer. Choi Soon-sil who had business in Germany had ordered someone to discard a box full of supplies when a JTBC reporter chanced upon it, dug through, and found the tablet. The device happened to be the very evidence that was missing; It contained drafts of Park’s presidential speeches with edits marked in red by Choi along with chat messages that revealed Choi’s influence on Park’s decisions. Further search revealed that Choi, who has no official government position, had illegal access to confidential documents and information for the president. When Choi returned to Seoul two days later, she was detained by police. On November 20, she was formally indicted on a number of charges, including extortion and abuse of power.

The revelation of the scandal jeopardized the position of President Park as well. Since she, as the current president, cannot be detained and jailed as punishment until her term is over, numerous citizens have voiced their opinions and shouted “Step down, Park Geun-hye!” The protest augmented to huge candlelight rallies that take place every Saturday at the Gwanghwamun Plaza. The most recent rally had about 1.6 million people participate.

Few Korean Loomis students who went back to Korea over Thanksgiving break attended this rally. Jason Lee ’19 remarked that despite having a total of 1.3 million people participate in the candlelight rally, he was surprised and proud to observe that “there was no violence involved.” He was inspired from the event to get more interested in politics and said “I learned why I had to be concerned about politics as a Korean citizen.” Jeewon Shin’17 also attended the rally and was touched when she saw people helping clean up the city so that the city janitors did not have extra work and remarked “I think that this goes to show how considerate and polite people were even in midst of dispute and anger.” She further claimed that “As a Korean, [I felt like] it was an obligation to help fill the amount of people there so that the government can finally open their eyes and see so many people” opposing and disagreeing with it. Finally, Dylan Koo ’19 showed strong opinion on this topic as he feels the “government betrayed the citizens’ trust.” After participating in the rally as well, he claimed to have been very surprised by the “peaceful nature of the rally of the people’s words and actions, unprecedented in previous rallies in Korea.” Moreover, he called the candlelight rally as an “amazing feat that illustrates the power in the citizens’ voices.”

The political scandal in Korea and the citizens’ reactions can perhaps be directly tied to the quote Dr. Culbert shared: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” All three students who attended the rally reflected on the inspiration the movement has stirred within them. Indeed, had the citizens been more vigilant during the presidential election in 2012, had there been more efforts to question the Blue House earlier in Park’s term, perhaps this incident may not have had such a large impact as it does now. However, one fact is clear: Korean citizens are actively reacting to the government’s failure to protect and work for the people and the country. Millions are gathering weekly to conduct peaceful protests. These actions highlight not only the advanced mindset the society has cultivated over the years, but also the necessity of awareness and interest in both domestic and international affairs order to create a world in which one can voice opinions freely, correct each other, and cooperate with one another to overcome hardships.