South Korea kicks out Samsung’s pet prez

Park Geun-hye

For the last few months, we’ve been following the growing South Korean corruption scandal that involves the Samsung Corporation, President Park Geun-hye, and the President’s best friend Choi Soon-sil. In a country where corruption scandals involving ties between top political leaders and the powerful chaebol – the immense, family-controlled conglomerates that are the pillars of the nation’s economy – are a frequent occurrence, the present scandal was the biggest ever.

South Korea’s Constitutional Court

On Friday, that scandal came to a climax as the eight justices on the country’s Constitutional Court voted unanimously to remove Park Geun-hye from the office of the presidency for committing acts that “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” The court’s move, which followed the suspension of Park’s powers in December when the national legislature voted for impeachment, and which took effect immediately, was without precedent in South Korean political history.

Choi Soon-sil in police custody

The unseating of Park caused joy in some quarters and fury in others. A protest outside the courthouse by supporters of Park turned violent, with two protesters dying in the melee. As for Park, now that she no longer enjoys the immunity from prosecution that comes with being president, she is likely to be tried on charges of bribery, extortion, conspiracy, and abuse of power for having extorted millions of dollars from Samsung and other firms in collaboration with her lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil.

Lee Jae-yong

Park’s ouster on Friday followed the arrest, on February 17, of Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, and the announcement on February 28 that prosecutors would be indicting Lee “on charges of bribery and four other offenses.” As Choe Sang-hun wrote in the New York Times, “Samsung, the nation’s largest conglomerate, has been tainted by corruption before. But the company has been considered too important to the economy for any of its top leaders to spend time behind bars — until now. The jailing of Mr. Lee, who is facing trial, is another potent sign that the old order is not holding.”

The Constitutional Court’s ruling marked a victory for honest government and above-board business practices. As Choe noted, the constitutional orderliness of the process also demonstrated how how far South Korean democracy has come in the last half-century. Ahn Byong-jin of Seoul’s Kyung Hee University told the Times that “the curtain is finally drawing on the authoritarian political and economic order that has dominated South Korea for decades.”

Park’s supporters clash with police

The verdict may also, alas, turn out to have a serious downside. To quote Choe, Park’s departure “is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition, whose leaders want more engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major confrontation in the region. They say they will re-examine the country’s joint strategy on North Korea with the United States and defuse tensions with China, which has sounded alarms about the growing American military footprint in Asia.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn

In other words, South Korea, which in recent years has been a reliable bulwark of democracy in the region, may end up being led by people who are eager to appease Kim Jong-un and Beijing and to distance themselves from the U.S. and other democratic allies. The election to replace Park must take place within sixty days; in the meantime, an ally of Park’s, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will serve as acting president. According to the Times, the Trump government “is rushing a missile defense system to South Korea so that it can be in place before the election.”

Seoul sisters

Berlin, Staatsbesuch Präsident von Süd-Korea
Park Chung-hee

It wasn’t much more than a couple of months ago that we took a gander at South Korea’s chaebols, the massive firms – such as Samsung and Hyundai – that make up a huge portion of that country’s economy and that have been at the center of one scandal after another, in which top politicians have been accused of taking huge sums from the giant companies in exchange for monopolies, patents, tax breaks, and the like.

This practice, known as rent sharing, became established during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (1963-79), and has continued into the country’s democratic era. Presidents Roh Tae Woo (1988-92) and Kim Dae-Jung (1998-2002) were both found guilty of taking chaebol cash; President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) responded to allegations of accepting chaebol bribes by jumping to his death in a ravine.

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Park Geun-hye

Now South Korea is embroiled in what may be the biggest chaebol scandal yet. In a case that began to make headlines just last month, President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, has been accused of helping a longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, extort some $69 million from several of the chaebols and letting her receive classified documents. On November 1, Choi was taken into custody by police.

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Seoul protest against Park

Members of Park’s own party have called for her impeachment; countless people have taken part in demonstrations around the country demanding her resignation or arrest; over half a million gathered in Seoul this past Saturday in the largest protest the country has experienced since the end of authoritarian government in 1987.

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Choi Soon-sil

The corruption scheme began when a South Korean TV network, JTBC, reported that Choi had improperly received secret government documents via e-mail. Choi, who is said to have received the above-mentioned $69 million through two foundations she controls, is widely viewed as the real power behind the president, who has been in office since 2013; editorial cartoons have depicted her as Park’s puppet master. Prior to her arrest, Choi apologized for having “committed a deadly sin” and asked the public for its forgiveness.

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Park Chung-hee (left) meeting with Choi Tae-min

Choi and Park go back a long way: Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, was a shady character and ecclesiastical huckster (the New York Times has called him a “religious charlatan”) who, in addition to founding a marginal sect called the Church of Eternal Life, managed to wangle his way into the role of close friend and adviser to Park’s father.

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The Blue House

Like father, like daughter: the younger Choi not only succeeded her father as head of his daffy church; she also wields a great deal of power in the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House, even though she holds no official title. For years, according to CNN, Choi “has given Park spiritual guidance.” She’s seen, in fact, as something of a Rasputin, who’s dragged into the presidential orbit a load of astrological hogwash and mystical hocus-pocus.

On Sunday, lead prosecutor Lee Young-ryol said that he would investigate President Park, whom he called an “accomplice” of Choi’s in the scandal and who has so far refused to be interrogated by police. (Park now becomes the first South Korean president to be criminally investigated while still in office.) Lee also announced that he had indicted Choi on charges of extortion and abuse of power and had charged two former Park aides with pressuring firms to donate to Choi’s foundations and handing her classified documents.

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Hwang Kyo-ahn

Fortunately for Park – who has already dismissed ten senior policy aides, several cabinet members, and the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn – she’s protected by the Constitution from prosecution (except in cases of treason and insurrection) as long as she stays in office. But her approval rating is at a miserable 5%, and things are changing quickly as the investigation passes into the hands of a parliament-appointed special prosecutor. If she gets impeached, she may go straight from the Blue House to the Big House.

Meanwhile, of course, all this has shaken up several of the chaebols, whose leaders have been questioned by the police. We’ll get to that tomorrow.