Park’s Impeachment & Her Legacy

Learn more about Park’s impeachment and its impacts on South Korea’s future.

Former President Park Geun-hye was a lot of firsts; she was the first female president in South Korea, the first female president popularly elected as head of state in East Asia, and the first democratically elected president to be removed from office in Korea. On March 10, 2017, the Korean constitutional court upheld the impeachment that had been approved by the Korean parliament in a unanimous 8–0 decision, terminating Park’s presidency 11 months early.

During her 2012 presidential campaign, she had an approval rating of 45.5% when competing against all potential candidates because she inherited many supporters from her father, Park Chung-hee. He was a Korean military dictator during the Cold War, and he was the icon of the conservative establishment that collaborated with Washington in pressing a hard line against North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Many elderly citizens talked nostalgically of the past when Park Chung-hee had led Korea through rapid economic development (often called the Miracle on the Han River). They felt they have been left out in today’s prosperous South Korea where Confucian family values have largely vanished and the rate of old-age poverty is the highest among OECD countries. Park Geun-hye’s conservative stance on all issues had reminded them of Park Chung-hee, and so she was sworn in in 2013 with high approval ratings.

However, support for Park Geun-hye followed a downward trend throughout her presidential term. It hit a low in April 2014 after the sinking of the Sewol ferry when the Park administration’s failure to act quickly resulted in systemic lapses was blamed for the Sewol ferry tragedy. Even so, Park’s true fall from grace began on October 24, 2016, when JTBC, a Korean broadcasting company, uncovered a tablet computer belonging to Choi Soon-sil. Choi was a friend of Park who held no official position in the government, yet the documents found on the computer suggested that Choi had received confidential presidential documents and edited key speeches that she was not authorized to handle.

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PC: Global Research

Choi Soon-sil is the daughter of Choi Tae-min, a cult leader that became a mentor to Park after her mother (then the First Lady) was assassinated. Since then, Choi Soon-sil was Park’s confidante, but after Park became president, Choi became one of the most powerful people in Korea; she secretly wielded almost unchecked influence, exerting control over Park’s policy direction, the hiring of government officials, Park’s speeches, and even what she wore.

After Park publicly apologized about the scandal, prosecutors began to question Choi and Lee Jae-yong, the vice chairman of Samsung. Although Park had promised to cut the government’s close ties to Korean conglomerates, or chaebols, it had been evident for a while now that she not only failed in this regard, but actually reinforced the corrupt system. Samsung, among other conglomerates, was thought to have been pressured by Choi to transfer millions of dollars to “nonprofit” foundations (Mir Foundation & K-Sports Foundation) controlled by none other than Choi Soon-sil.  

After a series of mass rallies calling for Park’s impeachment and interrogations of the heads of conglomerates, lawmakers voted to impeach Park among charges of corruption on December 9. Power was immediately transferred to Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister. A pro-Park group, Park Sa Mo (which literally means “the people who love Park Geun-hye) that mostly consists of elderly people held counter-rallies, expressing their disapproval of the motion to impeach their beloved president. Meanwhile, Park blocked investigators from entering the Blue House where she had holed up after the National Assembly motion to impeach her. She refused to be questioned and attended none of the 20 hearings at which the court heard evidence against her, but in the end, the constitutional court voted to uphold the impeachment motion. A snap presidential election is to be held within 60 days, and opposition parties have been rallying support for their candidates.

Park’s downfall is expected to shift South Korean politics from the conservative Saenuri party (which is now called the Liberty Korea Party) to the liberal opposition whose leaders want more diplomatic engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major military confrontation against North Korea and China. Of all the candidates running for the position, Moon Jae-in, a liberal Korean politician, is expected by many to be the front-runner.

Democratic United Party Leader Moon Jae In At Party Headquarters
PC: Fortune

However, many consider the impeachment of park to be a victory of Korean democracy because it was change brought about by a politicized youth. This controversy fostered political awareness in generation that had been showing downward trends in voter turnout all around the world. Although millennials are better educated than past generations, more likely to go on a protest or to become vegetarian, and less keen on drugs and alcohol, they lost many of the habits that inclined their parents to vote; they are less likely to watch news on television, read the newspaper or listen to news on radio.

The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor in Korea especially after 1997 Asian currency crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis have led to many young people struggling with precarious working conditions and job insecurity. The mass public demonstrations that ultimately led to Park’s ousting was led by the nation’s youth who have grown increasingly vexed at the corrupt elites who seemed to be above the law. The nation’s youth who were at the forefront of the peaceful protests learned that their actions ultimately could bring about change and even hold to account the most powerful people in the country: Lee Jae-yong and Park Geun-hye.

– Kristin Kim (’20)

Featured Image: CNN

Sewol Ferry: We Do Not Forget

Sewol Ferry, a tragedy of hundreds. Why does it remain an issue in 2016, and why should you care? Read on for what you don’t know about the issue.

On April 6th, 2014, a ferry of 426 passengers capsized on its trip from Incheon to Jeju island. This marks the Sewol Ferry incident that ceaselessly continues to haunt the nation after more than 2 and a half years. Recently, it is especially garnering more attention in the context of the Park Geun-hye scandal. What makes it so significant, how is it still relevant, and most importantly, why shouldn’t we forget?

For those who are unaware of the details of the original incident, the following is a summary of the facts. On the ferry were 325 students from Danwon high school, taking their annual school trip, along with 14 teachers, other passengers and crew members. When the ferry crashed that morning and began to tilt 45 degrees, the ferry notified the police. For around two hours, it was broadcasted within the boat that the passengers should stay put, emphasizing for the students not to come out to the deck, in a situation where they should have been escaping the boat for rescue. In the end, the captain escaped and survived, along with students and passengers that managed to exit the boat. Those who obeyed the broadcast make up the 295 irretrievable victims. A nationwide broadcast soon after the incident reported that all were rescued, and parents miles away sighed in relief; only to be notified a few hours later that this was far from the truth.

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“My son is starving too. My child is crying too…” -Sewol Parent

If the incident was simply a tragic accident, why is it still an issue today? While it was reported that the government made rescue attempts to the best of its ability, no one who was trapped in the boat was successfully rescued. There is definitely much room for suspicion. The parents were refused the ride to approach the scene during the rescue operations, and eventually paid for a boat to see the scene for themselves. An interview with a mother revealed that civilian rescuers were stopped from helping out until the parents and the rescuers put up a fierce argument. It was reported on television that the government had allowed it from the beginning.

The 3 media giants of Korea (SBS, KBS, MBC) broadcasted with a positive outlook, much inconsistent with what the actual scene was like: frantic, unorganized, and disheartening. While the nation was told that rescue teams had advanced to the ship’s dining hall, they had not even actually entered the boat; the media claimed that air was being pumped in, when the pumping equipment had not even arrived on scene.

“I was watching a live video of the scene and TV reports at the same time when I realized that all the important parts were missing from TV. Sometimes, I would see the news blatantly contradict what I was seeing with my own eyes. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right.” -Korean blogger

Rescue specialists from the navy and the Seoul City Rescue Team, equipped with years of experience and cutting-edge technology, were refused entry to the scene. The police continued to curiously turn down and block offers of help by other parties, while making multiple blunders and showing extreme inefficiency. Multiple eyewitnesses testified that contrary to the media’s reports of grand rescue operations, nothing was actually happeningPresident Park’s claim was that “the government is utilizing all resources and manpower possible for the search and rescue”, while parents cried foul: “no one is doing anything. Anything! Are we standing around so we can take out the dead bodies?” No one knew who was in charge, and no one would answer the parents’ questions. Besides the few mentioned, there are innumerable points of suspicion. There are too many to list in a single article, but all of them point to a single allegation: it wasn’t that they couldn’t rescue the passengers. It was that they wouldn’t.

“Everything going on the TV right now is a lie. They’re all lies. What’s the use of news reports when they’re all lies?” -Parent interviewed on scene

A mysterious lack of transparency and communication is what is keeping the issue above the water. To this day, parents continue to gather in front of the Sejong statue at Gwanghwamun in a vehement cry for the government to investigate who is to blame and what actually happened.

The main point of inquiry that links the issue to president Park is that no one knows what she was doing for 7 critical hours when the incident first occurred. As the president, it was her most basic duty to be on the job, being alert and putting her full attention into commanding the urgent situation. It was recently revealed that Park spent 90 minutes of that time getting her hair styled, galvanizing even more fury among citizens, and the government still refuses to disclose Park’s whereabouts for the remainder of the 7 hours. Strong allegations include one that claims Park was meeting a shamanist during the time, and another that claims Park was undergoing plastic surgery, each theory backed with a collection of inconclusive evidence. While the truth is still unclear, an undeniable fact is that Park’s actions that day are being concealed by the government.

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Families of Sewol victims protest for the truth

This is why the Sewol Ferry issue has a significant place in the tsunami of protests against Park’s presidency. During the most recent weekly protest, Saturday, December 3rd, a Sewol victim’s parent gave a speech calling for the truth, moving many to tears. She appealed that “the last name my Eun-hwa called for was probably ‘mother’. Sewol Ferry is still underwater, and so are the 9 unrecovered children. They want to come back to their families.” Our nation’s ranking in media freedom has, since the Sewol incident, dropped to the 30th place out of 34 OECD countries. The ship is still under the surface, and so is the truth. We refuse to forget until it is brought into the light.

-Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)

Cover Illustration: Hannah Kim (’19)

Sources:

 

A Leader Led Astray, People in Disarray: Choi Sun-Sil Scandal

A recent political scandal has left Korea in shambles. Read for a summery of the issue, along with a personal take on the individual’s attitude in the midst of such a crisis.

*Cover Image: Students gather in protest against the Park regime.

The leader of a state is secretly under heavy influence of a person who is not affiliated with the government in any way, who has become a mysterious figure with immense amounts of power and affluence under her fingertips. This falsely bestowed power reaches specific decisions handled through the puppet “leader” and even classified national documents. Does this sound like a post-apocalyptic novel to you? Perhaps a chapter in a history book, or a far-fetched conspiracy theory?

Shame on this nation: it is a current reality.

When Park Geun-hye was first elected as President of the Republic of Korea on December 19, 2012, the post-election sentiments were nothing out of the ordinary. She had won 51.6% of the vote [1], and the results left some of the populace disappointed, some indifferent, and some hopeful. In other words, her presidency started out like any other. Many Koreans looked out into a new era, hoping for the daughter of ex-president Park Chung-hee, and the first female president to be serving in Korea, to be a source of deliverance from the country’s societal problems. President Park’s career then saw many twists and turns, including election-meddling scandals, labour policy criticism, and heavy protest relating to government-created history textbooks. But the recent scandal, involving the aforementioned power figure, has led her approval ratings to drop to an all-time low of 5% [2].

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Flags wave above the crowd as citizens protest against the Park regime.

The crux of the scandal is that president Park has been under the counsel of a personal acquaintance, a woman named Choi Sun-sil. The nature of this relationship is still being investigated, with Park only describing Choi as an “old friend”, but it has been strongly speculated that spiritual or shamanic guidance is at the core, especially with Choi’s father being a religious cult leader. This has provided even more of a sensationalist twist for conspiracy theorists and has given rise to the metaphor of a “Korean Rasputin”. Abundant rumours and first-hand accounts relate to Choi’s father having, at one point, completely held control over Park’s soul in her early life. The scandal is extremely complex and multi-faceted, and many narratives have yet to be confirmed, many questions yet to be answered.

Evidence, including some 200 computer files found in Choi’s office by journalists, exposed that Choi has advised president Park on matters big and small. Choi’s influence reached presidential speeches, important policy statements, and even wardrobe choices. From there, a string of investigations led to a mass of evidence on Choi’s corruption, allegations including manipulation of her daughter’s university admittance and connections with mass corporations. Increasing confirmation of the Choi family’s massive wealth has done much to continue spurning the nation’s anger. Choi Sun-sil has since returned to Korea and is awaiting trial for criminal charges.

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One of the many flyers found near protest areas

Park’s reputation is now irrecoverable. Her feeble public apologies have done nothing to alleviate the public’s outrage, if not fueled it even more. She has discharged multiple officials in an attempt to regain some of the lost trust, but the citizens continue to cry out for resignation and even impeachment, while masses of people continue to gather in front of Gwanghwamun for protest, and in other local areas apart from Seoul. The population is no longer divided on evaluating Park as they were when she was first elected; the people are now in almost complete unity, rallying against the atrocious deception and complete disregard for democracy that the scandal has shown in president Park.

And what happens to women’s places in the government? While the conservative and heavily gender-biased nation of Korea seemed to have made some progress by electing a female president, some of the blame of this scandal is shifting towards “the inability of women to govern with rational thought”. Does it seem likely that Korea will be open to electing another female leader soon? What happens to international relations? What happens to North Korea, seeing that even Kim Jong-Un recently questioned the nature of Park’s foreign policies? The scandal permeates across every field of concern.

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The issue goes much further than a simple corruption scandal. Many students of KIS are unaware of the magnitude of this problem, perhaps being masked by another riot of the U.S. presidential elections. But even while Koreans watch and mock the U.S. elections as if it were a circus, they forget that their own government has been one all along. Park’s entire presidency has been a farce. A puppet-master has been behind it all along: a leader that the people did not know they were voting for when they voted for Park in 2012. While some argument persists that the nation must seek stability while allowing Park to finish her presidency, this is difficult for the average civilian to accept when they feel that the government is not in their hands anymore. Indeed, one of the many slogans being cried across the country is “Korea is no longer a democracy”.

As individuals in a large, troubled population, we must shift our focus to being aware of the big picture. The single scandal is leading to greater attention in other areas of society with a lack of transparency. Korea needs to wake up to the reality that the scandal is only a centerpiece to a feast of corruption that has been continuing for decades. Awareness is crucial- the issue evolves daily and information becomes outdated within days. This article covers only the tip of the iceberg. With the limited writing capabilities of a high-schooler to capture such a hefty topic, readers are urged to follow the issue with other sources. It is also crucial not to be caught up in the popular fury, but to retain the ability to discern what information is relevant and credible, while genuinely understanding the implication of the issue. It is so easy to be angry, but so hard to be truly angry.

I attended a mass protest on November 12, 2016, where an estimated maximum of a million citizens gathered near Gwanghwamun, Cheongwadae (Blue House), and the Seoul City Hall. The number million can be hard to fathom- picture street after street as oceans of people, the economic and political center of the city overrun with anger. The demonstration held its heat well into the night, symbolic of how much personal passion this event had galvanized. The chants were deafening, the fury overwhelming.

As I stood holding a candle, staring into the crowd with my father, he told me, “shouting and making yourself heard is important, but just by being here, you are voting with your feet. You are expressing with your feet.” Perhaps it is difficult to see how we, as individuals, can change so massive of an issue. But taking a stance means something bigger than this scandal. We, too, can make a difference in each of our small worlds. Whether that means being an honest president, citizen, student, or school club officer, everyone has a place in making this country a better one. We stand at a crossroads in history- may we stand, ideologies united, in the belief that we have the power to change something.

– Jisoo Hope Yoon (’19)

Sources:

[1]: http://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=449

[2]:http://www.gallup.co.kr/gallupdb/reportContent.asp?seqNo=787&pagePos=1&selectYear=&search=&searchKeyword=

Image credits: Jong-ha Yoon