Turmoil in South Korea

11/26/16 | Mark Kivimaki | Chief Correspondent

On the Surface

The past month has marked South Korea with political strife. Shocking allegations that the daughter of a shamanistic cult leader, Choi Soon-sil, has been influencing the decisions of president Park Geun-Hye, have raised questions about everything from the president’s wardrobe to her foreign policy decisions. South Koreans have begun to protest, calling for Park to step down, and the scandal continues to escalate.

Who is Choi Soon-sil?

After her mother’s assassination in 1974, Park Geun-Hye befriended Choi Tae-min, a Christian leader in charge of a group called the Church of Eternal Life. The elder Choi became a mentor to Park, and Park befriended Choi Tae-min’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil. Since then, Choi Soon-sil has been a close confidant to Park, even as Park’s political career escalated.

Recently, critics of the Park presidency have claimed that Choi wields inordinate power over Park. Choi allegedly used her connections to gain access to confidential documents about North Korea, pressured companies to donate to non-profits, and even control the presidential wardrobe budget. Park has attempted to downplay Choi’s influence, telling the media that she no longer seeks advice from Choi. However, witnesses have claimed that this is false and an investigation found documents on an unsecured tablet in one of Choi’s offices.

What does the future look like?

The future looks bleak for Park. Recent polls have shown that her approval rating has fallen to 5%. Additionally, rallies have continued in Seoul and South Korea, demanding that she step down. According to organizers, over one million people have turned out against Park at certain protests. Investigators are also closing in on Park. A sitting president cannot be prosecuted under South Korea’s constitution, but investigators have detained Choi, and are investigating two officials from Park’s office.

The main threat to Park right now is the possibility of an impeachment. Woo Sang-Ho, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has said that his party seeks to vote on the impeachment motion by December 9. A two-thirds majority is required in the South Korean parliament to impeach a president, and this would require at least 29 MPs from Park’s own Saenuri party to support the move to unseat her. Nevertheless, the probability of an impeachment will likely only increase as the investigation continues. More than 30 Saenuri MPs have stated publicly that they believe Park should be removed for her conduct, which easily breaches the threshold of MPs needed to cross the aisle.

However, even if the impeachment passes Parliament, it will go to conservative Constitutional Court, where it needs six of the nine judges to rule in its favor. Six of the current judges were appointed by Park’s conservative Saenuri party. While impeachment remains the most likely scenario, it’s still a long shot, and Park will leave office in February of next year either way.

What is clear right now is that Park’s political career is effectively dead, and even if she is not impeached, it is difficult to see her having a future in South Korean politics.

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