Katharine Moon on President Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal

Katharine (Kathy) H.S. Moon is a professor of Political Science and the Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College, where she has taught since 1993. She is also a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy and was the inaugural holder of the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies (2014-2016). She received a B.A., magna cum laude, from Smith College and a doctorate from Princeton University, the Department of Politics. She was born in San Francisco.

Professor Moon’s research encompasses the U.S.-Korea alliance, East Asian politics, inter-Korean relations, democratization, nationalisms, women and gender politics, international migration, identity politics, and comparative social movements in East Asia. She is the author of Protesting America: Democracy and the U.S.-Korea Alliance, which discusses the impact of South Korean democracy on the U.S.-Korea alliance and the institutional and procedural changes needed to improve the management of the alliance. Kathy Moon also authored Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, which explains how foreign policy decisions affect local communities hosting U.S. bases, particularly, women. Her current book project, New Koreans and the Future of Korea’s Democracy, analyzes the impact of demographic change (North Korean defectors and "multicultural" immigrants) in South Korea on Korean democracy and foreign policy. Her research awards include grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. Fulbright Program, the American Association of University Women, the National Bureau of Asian Research, and the Social Science Research Council. She spoke with Aaron Yang CMC '17 on January 27, 2017. 

Photo and biography courtesy of Professor Katharine Moon and Wellesley College.

How would you briefly describe South Korea’s presidential scandal? Who is Choi Soon-sil? What did she do?

South Korea’s 2016-2017 presidential scandal is very unique. The country has had more than its fair share of political scandals involving fraud, bribery, and embezzlement. There have been other presidents before President Park Geun-hye who have been involved, even much more intimately than President Park, in family corruption. There have been presidents’ families involved in serious corruption scandals. What’s different this time around is that it is the President herself who is an alleged suspect, in contrast to her predecessors whose family members were engaged in bribery or embezzlement, because a close acquaintance used her office and the power of that office to extort money from corporations. I think people are forgetting the most serious charge against President Park because of all of the issues involving Choi Soon-sil, President Park’s confidant and friend, who is now in prison awaiting her trial for real embezzlement and is the culprit. But what people seem to be overlooking at times is that President Park violated national law by sharing government documents, state secrets, and classified information with Choi Soon-sil, who has no security clearance, no authority in government, and is not an elected official. This is the biggest legal problem: that the President did not use good judgment and out of her own sense of need for personal confirmation and moral support let Choi see government documents that Choi should not have been privy to. Choi Soon-sil is a woman in her sixties who has been a close personal friend of President Park since President Park was in her early twenties. Choi Soon-sil’s friendship with President Park had an interesting start since President Park has no friends—she had a very lonely, even segregated life, as the daughter of the late President Park Chung-hee (1963-1979). Young Park Geun-hye was raised in the Blue House, South Korea’s equivalent of the White House. She grew up like a princess, absolutely cloistered in the grounds of the Blue House. She couldn’t play with other kids and hang out with her classmates. As a result, she grew up alone, away from a social life, from childhood into her young adulthood. President Park met Choi Soon-sil through Choi’s father, who was a cult leader back in the 1970s. The elder Choi is the one who had reached out to Park Geun-hye after she had lost her mother, the first lady, who was assassinated in 1974. Choi Soon-sil’s father, who called himself a minister, was a self-proclaimed Buddhist monk, a type of shaman, and somewhat of a religious entrepreneur. He reached out to Park, when she was in her early 20s, and said that he could hear her mother’s voice and had met her in the spirit world. He claimed that he had a message for Park from her mother. This is how the relationship with the Choi family started for Park. After the senior Choi died, his daughter Choi Soon-sil then became the prime confidant for Park Geun-hye even after she became president.

President Park apologized to the public twice in televised addresses. Do you think the outcome of the scandal could have been different if President Park had been more forthcoming in her first apology?

I would say that no matter what President Park might have done to apologize, no matter how many times or how sincerely, the people’s protests against her would have happened anyway. She had so many enemies among the people and political establishment. For one, when she was elected into office in December 2012, she won by the skin of her teeth. She had a three percent margin of victory over Moon Jae-in, who became the opposition leader. She basically had half of the population of South Korea not supporting her, and in that half there is a significant number of people, especially among South Korean activists, intellectuals, and young people, who absolutely detest her and her policies. This reflects the severe left-right split in South Korean politics, and the polarization got worse and worse under President Park. She was also very unpopular from the outset of her presidency because several months after she took office one of the worst civilian disasters occurred in contemporary South Korean history. The sinking of the MV Sewol ferry was a national tragedy where over 300 hundred high school students drowned to death on the way to a school field tip. The reason for the disaster was due to corruption, the ferry owner paid off government authorities to turn a blind eye to deficient infrastructure and regulatory standards on the ship. The ferry was overcrowded and safety protocols were disregarded. During the sinking, the ferry captain jumped ship leaving others to die. When the public found out about the horrible situation, they blamed President Park since she was very slow to respond. During that period in 2013, the public held numerous candlelight vigils and protests in response. There were other political issues such as President Park’s unilateral demand to streamline history books through government selection rather than leaving textbook choice to teachers and school districts. The centralized selection would have delivered a “correct” history of South Korea. Many people interpreted this as President Park’s effort to whitewash her dictatorial father’s legacy. Her father, President Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1963 to 1979, was a dictator and left a quite an ugly political legacy, though he was instrumental in developing the South Korean economy. She wanted to make sure that the history books would portray his legacy in a more positive light. All of these issues snowballed so that in November and December 2016 there was an outpouring of protest. President Park was doomed as soon as this issue with Choi Soon-sil happened because people have been sick and tired of waiting for renewed economic reforms and development, including better paying jobs and job security from temporary work. Much of South Korea’s youth struggle toward university only to find that they cannot get a full-time job and are left with temporary work, which has full-time hours but low pay and few benefits. The national situation was an explosion in the making.

What are chaebols? How are they involved with the presidential scandal?

The chaebols are huge economic conglomerates and corporations that basically run the South Korean economy. In a positive sense, they are responsible for generating a significant portion of South Korea’s GDP and employing a lot of people. If the chaebols do well, South Korea does well, a simple illustration of the relationship between the chaebols and the government since the 1980s. The problem with chaebols is that they are very big and suck up most of the economic energy of the nation. They also do not share much of the resulting benefits and many South Koreans feel left out. Many of these conglomerates are mega family businesses. Very few people feel they can get into the employment line because there are only so many jobs available and the process is highly competitive. If a person can’t get into a chaebol, they feel as if they have failed, even if they work in a medium-sized business. The chaebols occupy a certain social status in South Korean society also, which leads to resentment and envy towards the chaebols. The chaebols are involved in this corruption scandal because many of these conglomerates were approached by Choi Soon-sil, who used her close ties with President Park to pressure the CEOs and other leaders of these chaebols to give money to, what I would call fronts, for her embezzlement projects. Choi formed several foundations allegedly to promote Korean sports and culture, but actually to enrich herself and promote her daughter, who is an international equestrian. Choi went out to gather tens of millions of dollars from these chaebols, particularly Samsung. Samsung gave the most money out of all of the chaebols to Choi and her family. It has been proven so far, by what we know in the media and based on the prosecution process in South Korea, that Samsung directly gave money to Choi’s daughter to support her equestrian activities and efforts to compete internationally. These companies are often involved in all sorts of corruption scandals, but unfortunately they happen to be involved in this one. About nine chaebol executives were brought before the National Assembly during the impeachment process in order to investigate the relationship between the chaebols and President Park.

What sort of political transition can we expect to see if the constitutional court endorses President Park’s impeachment? Who are the major contenders for the presidency if an early election is held?

If the constitutional court endorses the impeachment, then what will most likely happen is an early presidential election. Until this scandal happened, it was understood that December 2017 would be the normal election period. With this scandal, people have called for early elections if President Park resigns or is impeached, which has been a point of contention between the opposition and ruling parties. If she is impeached, there will most likely be a spring election. If not, there will be a power vacuum and the acting president will not have the clout and legitimacy to carry out some significant duties of government until December. Koreans are very impatient people, so for them, waiting until December is a really long time. I think that former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, had he not dropped out, would have been a serious contender. Even if he might not have been strong-willed and effective enough to govern, he could have been a calming presence for the country as an elder statesman who has a lot of international experience and respect and can restore the dignity of South Korea. South Koreans need a healing presence since they have been really proud of their political achievements in regards to democratization and rapid economic growth. They feel horrified that their country has been brought down to its knees because of this scandal. Having someone who can restore the stature of South Korea would be psychologically helpful for many South Koreans. However, there is no unifying candidate in South Korea at this point. For both the liberals and conservatives there is no candidate who is really viable at this moment.

Populist movements have been gaining support in many democracies and developed countries around the world. Is the same happening in South Korea? What does Lee Jae-Myung’s rise as a presidential candidate say about the current political atmosphere?

South Korea is not headed toward a populist turn, at least not yet. Unlike other countries that have turned populist, South Korea is much more unified as a people in terms of national identity based on ethno-nationalism. Even though the country is more diverse than people think, there is still a strong sense of who “we the people” are. Whereas Europe and the United States are fractured societies in terms of national identity. Thus I would not put South Korea in the same category. South Koreans are also still very much focused on achieving a certain national stature. In Trump’s America, people feel that America is losing its economic edge. A similar atmosphere resides in Western Europe where people think other countries are doing better. But South Korea is not in that camp and the country does not feel it is slipping away from a dominant position. The two factors of strong national cohesion, despite cleavages, and the sense of a national purpose, that the country can do better and needs further work to get there, are preventing South Korea heading towards populism. But I think there are dangers at the socio-economic level with young people and some elderly and middle class who really worry that their sacrifices, their educational efforts, and their dreams will not bear fruit. Demographically, South Korea is in one of the most dire straits of all developed countries in the world. The country has one of the fastest ageing populations and one of the lowest fertility rates. This makes young South Koreans really scared since they cannot get the good jobs they need to support their families, their own lives, their parents, and society, which as a whole is growing elderly by the day. It is a real fear on part of young South Koreans. If populism is to emerge as a strong force, it would require more massive shocks. Right now, South Korea is not ready for a populist leader, especially because of North Korea. The real fears of instability in North Korea and real threats to the national security of South Korea give establishment figures the edge in South Korean politics.

Do you see President Park’s impeachment as evidence of Korea’s democratic resilience? 

I see the impeachment as both a reflection of democratic resilience and a bit of mob rule. It is reflective of democratic resilience because instead of a military or civilian coup, we are seeing President Park being pushed out of office through a legal procedure that is constitutionally sanctioned– impeachment. Instead of pillorying or arresting her illegally, without full legal grounds to do so, people have taken the legal route to impeachment. However, the impeachment decision itself was politically driven. Many of the National Assembly members really feared the public’s protest. One could say the public spoke, which is great since they let their voices be heard and the legislators responded, but legislators in South Korea, and in the United States as well, rarely lead and usually follow. Emotions are running high, particularly in this case due to the scandal, and the National Assembly members were also driven by emotion as well. They were driven by people’s emotion and the fear that constituents would start turning against them. Democracy needs to have a balance between distilling people’s wishes and interests and picking the best policy options for the future. Is impeachment the best option or were there other alternative routes the politicians could have explored? The other aspect that is important is the emphasis on the court. The impeachment process in South Korea is different from the one in the United States, where the legislature actually decides the result. The creators of the South Korea Constitution were smart in doing this differently since South Korea is a relatively young democracy. The legislature is brutal and contains so many factions, personality politics, divisions, and constant shifts in terms of political loyalties. Politicians change party names and come up with new party factions regularly. The legislature is relatively unstable. So, giving the constitutional court the last word and a veto on the impeachment process was a smart choice. Surveys in South Korea in the last few decades have shown that people trust the court more than any other branch of government. In that sense, this speaks well of South Korea’s democracy and how it is following the constitution to allow the constitutional court the last word whether to bless or overturn the National Assembly’s impeachment decision. 

The other thing about democracy that is important is that the South Korean people were frustrated with President Park prior to this scandal because she was pursuing a more authoritarian style of governance than any of her predecessors since the formal democratization of South Korea. Since 1988 and the election of the first president in a truly democratic South Korea in 1993, President Park was the first to reassume a dictatorial style. The South Korean people have been very upset and very resilient. In that sense the country’s democratic resilience has been demonstrated. For example, President Park was charged with a dictatorial style of governance in the way she rammed certain policies through the country. There was the history textbook issue of trying to force a government sanctioned history book in a democratic society. Another was President Park and her government’s decision to agree to a final decision with the Japanese government on the comfort women issue. Whereas I do believe that both the Japanese and South Korean government needed to just resolve the issue diplomatically once and for all, there have been many that are upset, particularly survivors of the comfort women system, that have felt that their needs and concerns over what justice should be were not taken into account. There were also instances where the South Korean government was pressuring newspapers and the media to toe the government line. The government showed a bias against media critical of President Park and her administration. These are only some of many examples.

Aaron Yang CMC '17Student Journalist
"Mass protest in Cheonggye Plaza" by Teddy Cross - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3d/Mass_protest_in_Cheonggye_Plaza_02.jpg
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