This is the English-language version of an article I published with Newsweek Japan last week.
Is anyone else, among readers living in Korea, amazed at how the coverage of this is now essentially non-stop? If you turn on any of the cable news stations here now, it’s Park Geun Hye all day all the time.
My big concern is that she stays on, perhaps surviving an impeachment vote or somehow or other lurching on into the spring next year, while facing regular demonstrations. How much longer will those protests say so peaceful? To date, they have been remarkably non-violent. But civil unrest is not hard to imagine if a hugely unpopular president stays in office for months and months with an approval rating around 4%. Even Park seemed to realize this when she gave that kinda-sorta resignation speech last Wednesday.
And the answer to the post title question is yes, in case you haven’t figure that out yet. Let’s just hope the Norks don’t pull some hijink while the ROKG is frozen like this. God forbid we have some executive-vs-legislative battle over who leads the response.
My previous writing on this scandal is here.
The full essay follows the jump.
he scandal around South Korean president Park Geun Hye and her disgraced confidante is spinning out of control. Park is unlikely to step down, and the barriers to impeachment in South Korea are high, so she is likely to hang grimly onto her office. But her obstinance in the face of massive social resistance is paralyzing government in Seoul. Should she stay for the remaining fifteen months of her term, South Korea may well become ungovernable. It will be unclear who will wield legitimate authority when the president is so widely loathed, and if the street protests and opposition resistance continue, as is expected. The constant threat of North Korean provocation means a long period of stasis presents a strategic risk as well.
The Choi Soon Sil Scandal
The president’s close associate, Choi Soon Sil, has been a family friend for decades. Choi’s father apparently convinced an impressionable young Park that he could commune with her dead mother. When Choi the father died, it appears that his daughter, Soon Sil, stepped into his emerging role as spiritual advisor to Park. The influence of the Chois over Park has been widely likened to Rasputin’s influence over the last czar of Russia. Park herself has not disclosed the details of the relationship, but we do know now that she granted Choi extraordinarily wide reach within her administration, even though Choi had no relevant training or experience in politics. Choi then traded on this influence to amass wealth and favors for herself.
So bizarre is this and so wide was Choi’s reach, that the scandal has provoked the largest, most sustained street demonstrations in Korea since the democratization protests of the 1980s. More than one million South Koreans protested on Saturday November 12, a staggering 2% of the entire national population on the streets at one time. Choi apparently influenced areas as wide-ranging as the presidential wardrobe, presidential staffing choices, and North Korea policy. All this was conducted in secret, which much bureaucratic infighting as some staff sought to limit Choi’s power. Apparently the president even took action against those staffers, replacing them with others who would not challenge Choi. When all this broke, local media portrayed Park as a string puppet; the international press picked-up this interpretation as well. Park’s approval rating crashed to below 5%. The opposition parties abjured all cooperation with the administration, while Park’s party wants her to exit the party and govern as an independent. Should the National Assembly choose to impeach Park, much would defend on how these former party supporters would vote.
What if Park Stays?
Park almost certainly will not resign. She has not responded to the protests, and she has opened her administration to an independent prosecutor to placate public opinion. An old associate of her father’s (he was also president), Kim Jong Pil, said in a widely covered interview that she is too stubborn to step aside. Impeachment is possible, but the opposition must muster a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly (200 out of 300 MPs), on top of which the Korean high court, the Constitutional Court must also concur with a two-thirds majority (six of nine justices). This latter requirement blocked the impeachment of a previous president in 2004.
But with public opinion so strongly against her, plus the opposition parties and some of Park’s own party members, the real question is, can she govern if she stays? The National Assembly will almost certainly reject any meaningful cooperation on legislation. Street protests, endless media coverage, and rolling investigations that seems to uncover more with each passing week, will distract the administration so much, that little presidential or staff time will remain for the affairs of state. As American president Richard Nixon sought to fight off the Watergate investigation, it consumed so much of the White House staff’s time, that the administration was effectively paralyzed. One could easily foresee the same thing happening here.
Park has suggested conceding power over domestic policy to the prime minister. But the opposition, sensing blood in the water and keen to win next year’s presidential election, has dragged its feet on this. This would also probably generate major policy confusion, as the Korean prime minister’s role to date has been to be a president-in-waiting, like the American vice president, rather than to guide policy. It is easy to predict that this newly empowered PM would clash with the sitting president creating gridlock, as is frequently the case in countries with both a powerful president and PM. There is no Korean precedent or constitutional direction for such a prime ministership. This would be uncharted waters.
This Will End
The good news is that South Korea is scheduled to have a presidential election on December 20, 2017, with the inauguration on February 25, 2018. That at least puts a time limit on the chaos. A scandal of this magnitude, the greatest in South Korean democratic history, could have been disastrous in Park’s early years. But fifteen months is still a long time for a democratic government to be effectively paralyzed like this. Except for Watergate, I am hard-pressed to think of any other modern democracy frozen in crisis for such a long time.
If Park stays, her administration will nonetheless be neutered. She will be a care-taker, riding out the reminder of her term. The parliament will give her nothing. A technocratic PM may be able to make small decisions, but were any major issues or crises to arise, it is simply unclear who would rule. This would be a dangerous time for any democracy. Rabble rousers and troublemakers might arise. Civil unrest is even possible if Park insists on her full presidential privileges in the face of a nearly united rejection of her presidency. And of course, always lurking in the background is North Korea, ever-ready to take advantage of trouble and disarray in the South.
The greatest risk, should South Korea descend into ungovernable stasis next year, is indecisiveness in the face of a North Korean provocation. North Korea is notorious for its efforts to intervene and disrupt South Korean life. Many analysts believe North Korea times its provocations, such as missile launches, to influence South Korean political decisions and elections. Even were Park’s popularity very high, North Korean action next year around events such as US-South Korean military drills is entirely predictable.
The international fallout could expand beyond North Korean opportunism should the crisis grind on. To date, the major states in Korea’s foreign relations have remained quiet. All have their own scandals too, and even in her troubles, Park Geun Hye compares favorably to the tyrants of the Chinese Communist Party or irresponsible populist Donald Trump. Nonetheless three problems will arise in the coming months as serious foreign policy decisions can no longer be put off:
First, can Park’s administration convincingly negotiate the trade deals which are the life-blood of Korea’s export economy? A Central American Free Trade Agreement with a bloc of small Latin American states is nearing completion. In normal circumstances, this would be non-controversial, but now it is unclear if the opposition will ratify the deal. To schedule a vote on the deal and support it would signal business as usual, a return to normalcy with Park submitting legislation to the assembly, and MPs voting on it as required. Yet the assembly’s majority has declared her unfit for office. To work with her would undercut that position and ‘normalize’ her continuation in office.
Second, can Park push the South Korean public toward unpopular foreign agreements such as intelligence sharing with Japan on North Korea, or American THAAD missile defense in the region? Traditionally, presidents (or prime ministers) in democracies can use the ‘bully pulpit’ to persuade and cajole the public to endorse policies which otherwise might be controversial. Park has done so in the past regarding outreach to China on North Korea, and THAAD. But public support for THAAD is fragile, and for intelligence sharing it is low (around 30%). A functional Park administration could move those public numbers by launching a concerted national campaign of persuasion and discussion in the media, parliament, and presidential addresses. That is all but impossible now, because the scandal is becoming all-consuming and her approval rating is historically low. Intelligence sharing with Japan will likely fail this year, as it did four years ago, and the left is unlikely to give up on THAAD now that the president is in so much trouble. THAAD is scheduled for deployment next year; the scandal opens renewed opportunities to fight it.
Finally, as Park shows herself unable to deliver the Korean public support for important foreign policy decisions, foreign leaders will increasingly ignore her. If Shinzo Abe, for example, figures her approval rating is so poor that she cannot deliver intelligence sharing, why even try to pursue it now? Why not simply wait for her successor? As Park flails on foreign policy issues such as THAAD, simply due to scandal gridlock, foreign leaders will treat her as a lame-duck and forestall Korean deals until spring 2018.
Hence the obvious strategic vulnerability of ongoing chaos at the highest levels in Seoul. This is a gift to North Korea, precisely the sort of episode it uses to tell its people that South Korea is corrupt and decadent, precisely the sort of disruption it could worsen with even more disruption. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if, somewhere in Pyongyang’s backrooms, there was not active discussion of how to take advantage of this mess. Were North Korea to lash out, who could authoritatively shape the South Korean response? Can Park, if she is facing months of street and parliamentary obstruction? Would the left, which has traditionally been somewhat sympathetic to North Korea, support a president whom it demands should be impeached? The potential for trouble is extraordinary.