A cult leader and the dictator’s daughter
Thursday 17th November 2016
KENNY COYLE walks us through the bizarre scandal which could oust South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye. Her downfall could be an opportunity for the left to break the country free from neoliberalism
SOUTH Korea’s most recent political crisis has entered a new and possibly final stage, as momentum builds to oust scandal-ridden right-wing President Park Geun Hye.
At the weekend, an estimated one million demonstrators took to the streets of Seoul, while thousands more demonstrated in other major centres, such as Busan and Jeju Island, calling for Park to go.
Park has confessed to a bizarre political relationship with the daughter of a former religious cult leader, who befriended her more than 30 years ago. She denies any illegal acts.
However, her accusers allege that Park was not only advised by her friend Choi Soon Sil — who is being investigated for peddling political influence in return for cash — but that she also shared sensitive government information and awarded lucrative contracts on her suggestions.
Choi is suspected of interfering in state affairs and appointments, receiving confidential documents and using her inside knowledge and connections to amass considerable personal wealth.
On Monday, state prosecutors announced they wanted to question two former presidential secretaries, who stepped down last month in a belated bid by Park to clean house. A third former presidential secretary, Jeong Ho Seong, is already in detention, facing similar allegations of illegally passing on presidential and government documents to Choi.
While her presidential term is not due to expire until February 2018, few now believe Park can ride out the storm.
Political foes and former allies alike have either called for her to resign or face impeachment. Park’s conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party is now embroiled in a civil war between her loyalists and those seeking to distance the party from what they see as a political liability.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon, whose term ends this New Year’s Eve, is the preferred candidate of the South Korean right. However, if Park resigns before December 31, new elections have to be called within 60 days, leaving Ban little time to campaign. Ban’s supporters are therefore playing for time, keeping Park in place for now but clipping her power.
Impeachment, if sufficient support for that could be found, would likely take at least six to eight months. In any case, Park’s political career is essentially dead in the water.
Park is an authentic product of the South Korean elite. She is the daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee.
The elder Park served as a Japanese collaborator in the wartime Japanese imperial army as did many of the post-1945 South Korean ruling class. Park Chung Hee rose to power in 1961, using his military links and the vicious activities of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to repress all opposition.
When an assassination attempt on Park Chung Hee in 1975 killed his wife, daughter Park Geun Hye, then just 23, took over the role of first lady.
It was after her mother’s death that the young Park fell under the influence of Choi’s colourful father, a former police officer [as a collaborator with the Japanese occupiers], Buddhist monk and founder of a Christian sect called The Church of Eternal Life and the pro-dictatorship Movement for a New Mind. Such was Choi senior’s influence over Park that he was dubbed the “Korean Rasputin.”
In 1979, Park Chung Hee was himself assassinated by Kim Jae Gyu, his own KCIA director. Kim said that part of his motive was the president’s failure to keep his daughter away from the influence of the sect leader.
After Choi senior’s death in 1994, his daughter continued to exercise the same dubious influence over Park Geun Hye, by then an up-and-coming right-wing politician. Choi Soon Sil is even credited with navigating Park’s eventual path to the Blue House — South Korea’s presidential palace — in 2012.
While the investigation is likely to unearth multiple scandals, two military decisions taken during Park’s presidency have come under particular scrutiny.
South Korea has one of the largest armed forces on Earth and its fat military budgets have provided rich pickings over the years for arms manufacturers and for corrupt political and military elements involved in awarding these lavish contracts.
Choi is accused of using her influence in a multibillion-dollar fighter jet project.
Opposition politicians have demanded details about links between Jeong Yoon Ho, Choi’s ex-husband and rumoured to have been Park’s lover, and Linda Kim, a controversial Korean-American arms lobbyist.
In 2007 a $7.28 billion tender was launched to re-equip the South Korean air force involving Boeing, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (Airbus) and Lockheed Martin.
The Boeing model eventually emerged as the frontrunner but in September 2013, little more than six months after Park had taken office, the contract was blocked. A further six months later, US arms giant Lockheed Martin was awarded a modified contract.
The second deal also involves Lockheed Martin, which was granted a $1bn contract to build a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system in the rural town of Seongju, some 130 miles southeast of Seoul.
As disarmament campaigners have long pointed out, anti-missile systems often encourage military strategists to believe in more aggressive posturing. This is the very last thing the Korean peninsula needs.
Even South Korean military analysts have expressed their scepticism about the effectiveness of Thaad, while thousands of Seongju residents and peace campaigners have demonstrated against the project.
China and Russia have also expressed their concerns. Both states believe that Thaad’s extensive radar range is essentially a US forward-spying mission directed against them as much as North Korea.
However, while alleged corruption has triggered these recent protests they also come at a time when the South Korean economy has slowed significantly and working people have taken the pain.
The fusion of political and corporate elitism has reached unimaginable heights in South Korea, where political favours have long been taken for granted by the few dozen Chaebols (multi-industrial conglomerates) which dominate all branches of the economy. For example, Samsung Electronics — which is valued at $300bn — has nearly 80 affiliated subsidiaries in dozens of different fields.
South Korea has averaged annual growth rates of just 2.7 per cent over the past five years. While impressive by British standards, this is way below the highs of the 1980s, when yearly GDP growth averaged over 9 per cent.
Neoliberal policies followed by Park and her predecessors have seen familiar results. Between 1995 and 2010, South Korea’s largest manufacturing firms shifted 17 per cent of their production overseas, much of it to low-wage economies in south-east Asia.
Casual, part-time and temporary workers have increased from 27.4 per cent of the working population in 2002 to 34.2 per cent in 2011.
More than one third of South Korean workers suffer insecure job conditions, receiving only around 60 per cent of regular workers’ salaries with no medical insurance, severance pay or company welfare subsidies.
In the shipbuilding industry at least 6,000 full-time workers have lost their jobs already this year, some through simple redundancy but many through “voluntary” retirement schemes.
One of the three biggest shipbuilders, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, forced its workers to submit supposedly voluntary retirement applications that the company could keep “in its desk.” A second member of the big three, Samsung Heavy Industries, said it would reduce its shipyard workforce by 30-40 per cent by 2018 and is expected to lay off 2,500 workers next year.
Aside from the squeeze on South Korean workers, Park’s rule has also seen intensified attacks on academic freedom, on the left and those seeking more constructive approaches to relations with North Korea.
In 2013, the right-wing government and judiciary rubber-stamped a witch-hunt against the small Unified Progressive Party (UPP), whose MPs were framed by the KCIA’s successor, the National Intelligence Service, as potential pro-Pyongyang saboteurs.
One UPP parliamentarian was sentenced to 12 years in jail, its remaining MPs were disbarred from the National Assembly and the party itself has been banned.
Park has bought chilling reminders of her own father’s legacy of repression. South Korea’s crisis also comes at a crucial point in Asian and American relations.
The “pivot to Asia” spearheaded by President Obama and his then secretary of state Hillary Clinton is clearly in some trouble.
In his statements on US military bases in East Asia and on possible talks with North Korea, president-elect Trump has contradicted himself, made major policy pronouncements only to reverse them weeks or even days later.
In the face of such confusion, the mass movements against Park may perhaps provide an opportunity for left and democratic forces to resurface and regroup around the fight for a break with South Korea’s neoliberal economics and an end to the US military presence on the Korean peninsula.
Thousands Demonstrate Against South Korean President. This is the fourth straight weekend of protest. 11/19/2016 12:31 pm ET: here.