South Korea’s Email Scandal: Protests in Seoul
The streets of Seoul were packed with thousands of protesters last weekend in the wake of a leaked email scandal concerning President Park Geun-hye. Park ordered ten members of her cabinet to step down because of their involvement in the scandal, and even Prime Minister Yoo Il-ho was pressured to step down, resulting in Yim Jong-yong being named the new finance minister and deputy prime minister.
The scandal stems from the interference of Choi Soon-sil, a longtime friend of President Park, in state affairs. Choi is the daughter of the cult leader Choi Tae-min, who was Park’s mentor until his assassination, and served as a close confidante for the President, allegedly having access to classified documents and important decision making procedures. There are even reports that Choi organized a secret cabinet of “eight fairies” who advised Park behind the scenes, despite not being elected officials or official presidential appointees.
Choi returned to Korea from Germany this week to cooperate with the investigation and was immediately placed under detention after prosecutors expressed fears that she might destroy evidence of her involvement. A tablet computer was found in her possession that showed evidence of her involvement in classified government affairs, including copies of speeches that President Park had yet to give. President Park acknowledged that she let Choi edit drafts of her speeches, which prompted an estimated 9,000 Koreans to march in protest, carrying signs reading “Who’s the Real President?” While editing speeches may not seem like a dramatic crime, Choi has been compared to Rasputin in Czarist Russia and those calling for Park’s resignation argue that Choi was attempting to interfere with the democratic process, molding the government to her own aims. Choi is accused of advising Park on political appointments and policy decisions, and using her influence to force corporations to donate to the foundations that she works with. As she was escorted into prosecutors’ offices this week, Choi stated on the record that she had “committed wrongs for which I deserve to die.”
South Korea’s constitution protects Park from criminal prosecution except in the case of treason or insurrection but that has not stopped calls for her resignation, especially from the younger population. Park’s presidential term will end in 2018 but with her ministers being forced out and her aides resigning, President Park may barely have a cabinet left to work with during the “lame duck” phase of her Presidency. With her reputation destroyed, Park will now most likely fail to push through the changes she had hoped to make to the economy. The protesters who rallied this weekend were doubtful that Park will face impeachment, as that process must be approved by the supreme court (which is staffed by presidential appointees), but hoped that her crumbling cabinet and rock bottom approval rankings will force her into resignation. And now, Park has had to give up her ability to select a new Prime Minister.
The vitriol expressed against President Park is eerily similar to that expressed against Secretary Clinton over her private email server. Both of their political careers have been so severely damaged by email scandals that they may never recover.