Nearly all of the news from Korea this week is about the scandal that has paralyzed President Park Geun-hye’s presidency, and may even end it. Going by Alastair Gale’s report in The Wall Street Journal, the scandal has three main elements, along with some other (mostly) unspoken elements.
First, Park has said that her “friend, Choi Soon-sil, had helped her prepare speeches early in her presidential term.” She has since apologized for this, although I can’t see why. Most American presidents have had confidants outside of government from whom they sought advice. Some presidents still call on members of think tanks to advise on specialized issues, and call on people outside of government to break through the insulation of presidential bureaucracy and security. It seems like just a week ago when everyone was talking about left-wing politician and former presidential candidate Moon Jae-in’s choice of confidential advisor: Kim Jong-il. So far, that seems like the greater scandal to me, but what do I know?
Second, “[a] South Korean broadcaster has alleged Ms. Choi was also given access to confidential government documents.” Ms. Choi has denied this. That’s obviously wrong no matter who does it — whether it’s Park Geun-hye, David Petraeus, or Hillary Clinton. Whether the evidence actually supports that charge, what the documents were, at what level they were classified, and whether “lock her up” is an appropriate response to whatever disclosure occurred remains to be seen. In the current third-world state of U.S. politics, most voters here no longer consider that disqualifying. (Given the alternative, I can’t say I do, either.)
Third, “Ms. Choi, 60 … is also the subject of an investigation by prosecutors into possible corruption at two charitable foundations.” Ask a Korean adds that news stories accused Choi of “running a massive slush fund [that] extorted more than $70 million from Korea’s largest corporations” and used her influence to get her daughter admitted to Ewha Womens’ University. I’ve yet to see any evidence that Park knew about this or used her influence to impede an investigation, or to profit from or support Ms. Choi’s effort. That would be serious if proven, but it would hardly be unprecedented in South Korea. Recall that when former President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide, he was also embroiled in a bribery scandal involving his brother. As I said then, “For seasoned Korea watchers, presidential corruption scandals have all the zing and novelty of Kennedys driving drunk.” This is not to excuse anything, but to put it into context.
Then, there is also the weirdness of the allegation that Ms. Choi’s father was the founder of a religious cult. I’ve seen no proof that Park was an adherent of this cult, but religious beliefs ought to be a personal matter, absent evidence that they exerted an irrational or subversive influence on a leader’s policies. (See, e.g., Obama Muslim rumors.)
Lastly, there’s been some innuendo in circulation about whether Ms. Park may have been romantically involved with either Ms. Choi or her father. South Korea’s culture is very conservative on such matters; I’m not. I don’t give a damn whether President Park is attached or unattached, gay or straight, or neither. Here in the U.S., there are similarly nasty whispering campaigns about Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin (if you care, google it; I won’t link it). If I saw evidence that those rumors were true, I’d wish them happiness, especially if they each divorced their no-good husbands and normalized their relationship through marriage. (Alas, Mrs. Clinton’s nature is to connive in grand conspiracies to conceal petty crimes, or matters that merely create negative perceptions.) Otherwise, I wouldn’t care until someone linked the relationship to the disclosure of classified information, corruption, or vulnerability to blackmail.
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The greatest weirdness of South Korean politics, however, is how quickly these political firestorms seem to emerge from nowhere, and sometimes, from thin air. Also, without a single exception that comes to mind, they always target those hostile to Chinese and North Korean interests. A recent list includes the Sewol Ferry tragedy, the rumor that U.S. beef would cause Mad Cow disease, the Dok-do obsession, and the anti-American rage over the accidental death of two young girls in 2002. Of these, the slowness of the government’s response to the ferry disaster seems to be a legitimate scandal. The Mad Cow rumor was a myth spread by sloppy and biased journalists; Dok-do is already in South Korean possession; and the 2002 accident, while tragic, was an accident caused by defective equipment and involving a few individuals.
The fact that those who are opposed to Park’s North Korea policies have seized on the scandal, sometimes conflating rumor, innuendo, and fact, further fuels my skepticism. Some of the same observers who are quick to allege anonymously sourced NIS whispering campaigns about palace intrigues in Pyongyang now cite mysteriously sourced reports from The Hankyoreh, the adolescent bastard child of the Rodong Sinmun and The Daily Mail.
Although there is extensive evidence of North Korean influence operations inside South Korea, I’ve seen no evidence linking them to this specific case. I don’t know the precise origin of the reports that led to this scandal. Recently, however, Park’s North Korea policy has become a threat to the survival of Kim Jong-un’s regime. That’s why I hope Park survives. She’s doing what her predecessors should have done for years — she’s acting like a president for all Koreans, including those trapped behind the DMZ.
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For more than a decade before her election, Park Geun-hye was the candidate of Sunshine Lite — calculating, triangulating, scripted, and cautious. She was a Korean Hillary Clinton — both inspiring and uninspired toward anything but the will to power. She seemed so numbed to righteous outrage that not even the murder of her own mother on national television made an apparent impression on her politically convenient appeasement of Pyongyang. She was calm to such a fault that she seemed detached and aloof during the Sewol disaster, the worst moment of her presidency.
There were moments that gave me hope — the glimpses of vision and principle when she addressed Congress, or during the first Kaesong shutdown, and even after the admittedly flawed talks after last year’s mine incident. But until January of this year, Park always regressed to her politically cautious mean. Ideology aside, I can’t think of a Korean president who was less temperamentally predisposed to emerge as a bold, visionary leader of a Korean nation. Against all of the odds, Park Geun-hye enters the autumn of her presidency of South Korea by campaigning for the presidency of Korea, by inviting her brother and sister Koreans, who were unfortunate enough to have been born north of the DMZ, to “come and find a new home.”
In recent months, Park has also concern-trolled Kim Jong-un about the instability of his regime, accused that regime of “driving the lives of its citizens into a hell through the brutal reign of terror,” and promised the North Korean people better lives and equal treatment after reunification. She has vowed to support more efforts to get outside information into North Korea. She acknowledges that her government must do more to support the 30,000 refugees who’ve already arrived. She has even openly called for North Korean soldiers and civilians to defect:
“We know the brutal reality that you are facing now. The international community is also seriously concerned about the North Korean regime’s human rights abuses.”
Promising that the South will do its best to end the North’s provocations and inhumane rule, Park said, “We will leave the path open for the North Korean people to find hope and life. Come to the free land of the Republic of Korea at any time.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Who is this person, and what has she done with Park Geun-hye? If this is the voice of Choi Soon-il, President Park’s alleged svengali, then I nominate her for Unification Minister. More of this, please! It should go without saying that the usual suspects hate such talk. For obvious reasons, North Korea hates it. It also hates Park’s closure of Kaesong, her diplomatic campaign to cut off Pyongyang’s overseas arms trade and labor exports, and her implementation of a new North Korea human rights law. It has reacted with an intensity of nasty, sexist invective it reserves for strategies that threaten the regime’s very survival.
“It’s ridiculous and foolish that Park Geun-hye flutters her feet to smear our dignified leader’s reputation with infamy by persisting hallucinations in her head as an established fact and mentioning a reign of terror as well as starvation and repression,” Rodong reported on Monday.
“Park Geun-hye has the gall to ignore the reality within her grasp and to doggishly and overtly utter ravings as saying the land of freedom and encouraging defection,” the article continued. “There is no such a barefaced and impudent bitch elsewhere.” [NK News]
(Christine Ahn and Gloria Steinem were not available for comment.)
China hates this talk because it prefers North Korea just the way it is, and because many of the North Koreans who answer Park’s call to defect might try to transit through China’s territory. Park (joined by the President of the Council on Foreign Relations) has responded by trying to assuage China’s fears about a reunified Korea. China also resents Park for agreeing to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea.
South Korea’s anti-anti-North Korean left also hates such talk, because North Korea hates it. Its key members ask how Park would deal with the consequent mass refugee exodus they accuse her of inviting. Park acknowledges that South Korea must be ready for this. But a mass exodus would only happen coincidentally with regime collapse, and if South Korea isn’t prepared for that by now, much responsibility must lie with the left itself. Under Roh Moo-hyun, the Blue House refused to contemplate or plan for a collapse. Then, there are the reactions like that of People’s Party leader Park Jie-won, who in his best KCNA imitation, accused Park of making “a proclamation of war,” and the Minjoo Party says she’s walking the “warpath.”
Well! Perhaps reporters should make a habit of asking Mr. Park to characterize the things North Korean state media say about South Korea, or about President Park, on any given day. (See, e.g., “barefaced and impudent bitch,” or this, or this, or this.)
Whether Park survives or not, if she continues to speak calmly and cogently of universal humanitarian principles and Korea’s dream of nationhood, she may yet win the national argument for which Koreans, north and south, are so long overdue. That makes her a threat to powerful interests, both within Korea and beyond its borders. That conversation doesn’t have to end when Park’s troubled presidency does. Polled in isolation, Park’s North Korea policies have been popular. To keep up the argument for a “tough love” policy toward North Korea may be the best way for her to recast her legacy. After all, who would have predicted Richard Nixon’s rehabilitation as an elder statesman in 1974? There may be nothing better Park can do to build that legacy than to keep talking about the lives and rights of North Koreans, and about North Korea policy, for years to come.