The ‘shaman’ scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye illustrates many of the weaknesses of Korean society but also the vitality of its democracy.
The competition for strangest political story of 2016 is a tough: Donald Trump is now leader of the free world, the Prime Minister of India decided to nullify the value of close to 90% of the Rupee notes in circulation and the leader of the famously Catholic Philippines is now a guy who called Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’. However, the ‘prize’ probably goes to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye being impeached for abusing her office to benefit her shaman.
Ms Park gave this shaman, a woman by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, access to classified briefing materials including, it appears, some relating to North Korea. In addition, Choi ran charitable foundations and leveraged her connection to the president to get donations from a succession of large Korean companies including Samsung and Hyundai. Choi then embezzled from these foundations. In response to the discovery of these improprieties, the Korean parliament impeached her and as of Friday the prime minister has taken over as acting president. The Constitutional Court could still reinstate her but that seems unlikely.
The best and most evocative account of this truly bizarre scandal comes from Ask a Korean. I’d seriously recommend you go away and read it. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve seen this year. It captures not only the strange details of the case – like Choi’s personal trainer being appointed as presidential aide – bust also why a Korean public rather inured to accusations of corruption by their politicians have turned on Park so decisively. In addition, it shows real empathy for Ms Park.
At the root of her present predicament is that she lost a parent to an assassin’s bullet not once but twice.
Her father is probably the most divisive figure in modern Korean history. He became leader of South Korea shortly after the horror of the invasion by the North. His rule lasted for almost two decades. At the beginning the country was devastated by war, vulnerable to another invasion and poorer than the average sub-Saharan country. By the end, its economy had pulled ahead of the North’s and it was well on the way to becoming the modern affluent country it is today. However, the elder Park was also a military strongman responsible for many human rights abuses. He was eventually killed by his own intelligence chief whilst contemplating an even more intense crackdown on democratic activity.
However, it is the slaying of Park’s mother five years prior to these events that is most directly relevant to her relationship with Choi Soon Sil. A North Korean sympathiser attempted to kill General Park whilst he gave a speech to commemorate Korea’s Independence Day but he botched the attack and having been wounded by the president’s security team, began shooting wildly. One of these shots struck and killed Park’s mother. It is at this point that Choi’s family enters the story. Her father might (generously) be described as a ‘religious entrepreneur’. He approached the distraught Park telling her that he was able to communicate with her mother. This seems to have led to Park becoming emotionally dependent on him and then when he passed away on his daughter. Given this situation it is hard not to see Park as a victim as well as perpetrator, and the Chois as vultures feeding off Park’s pain for their personal gain.
However, notwithstanding her personal tragedy, she’s clearly done more than enough to justify her impeachment and has few defenders. I live in the region that is the bastion of her conservative Saenuri party. Despite this few of my Korean friends and acquaintances have been willing to speak in her defence and none has been prepared to do so with any enthusiasm. The far more common response has been a mixture of fury and, when forced to discuss it with a foreigner, acute embarrassment.
Which is no small matter in Korea. I am wary of pseudo-anthological generalisations about national cultures, but I do feel comfortable asserting that Korean society places a real premium on maintaining ‘face’ and a deep sense of shame generally results when this is not possible. This seems to apply not only to individuals but also to the nation as a whole, which apparently requires a large amount of validation by the rest of the world. The government spends large sums of money promoting its culture abroad. The global success of K-pop and K-drama is both a source of great pride and the product of deliberate marketing by both private and public sectors. Within the country itself, one of the pre-eminent measures of one’s social standing is your aptitude for English. For example, even businesses that have few, if any, non-Korean customers still plaster their store fronts with English signs to demonstrate their sophistication. One result of this is that billions of dollars are spent on English education, much of which goes on bringing foreigners like me over from the west to teach in the country to share our cultural capital with young Koreans.
In this climate, it is considered to Ms Park’s considerable discredit that she has exposed so many of the flaws of Korean society to global attention. For weeks now, the world’s media has been interrogating the high levels of political corruption, the prevalence of pseudo-Christian cults, and the overweening power of a few huge conglomerates and their intermeshing with the government. Even the national fixation on educational credentials has been noticed, because the roots of Ms Choi’s unmasking lay in her attempts to get her unqualified daughter into an elite university demonstrating, as Ask a Korean says that “If there is one thing that Koreans [care about] more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree.” This worldwide airing of their dirty linen has clearly been painful for Koreans. The disposition they frequently adopt when talking about the scandal is to stare down at the floor or table, put their hands to their temple as if trying to hide their face, and repeat the mantra: “shameful, so shameful”.
If the antics of Ms Park and Ms Choi have not exactly been a great advert for South Korea, the crisis they’ve begat has paradoxically demonstrated the durability and maturity of its democracy. A few months ago, even eminent and sensible western publications were publishing pieces with headlines like: “Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?” and to note that “President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.” Events have obviously shown this to be a misplaced fear. But it is not simply that the scandal came along and stopped dead a shift to authoritarianism. Rather the response has shown such a shift was always high unlikely. The Korean public is clearly willing to fight for good government. The anti-Park protests that made her impeachment an inevitability were enormous, at their peak including over two million people or almost 5% of the Korean population. Not only were they peaceful but so well organised and disciplined that the protesters arranged to clean up their own litter.
Media and prosecutors sometimes assumed to be supine and unwilling to challenge the country’s elites have swung into action. Many Saenuri law makers have acted in both the nation’s and their own interests by backing the impeachment. A major political convulsion appears to have passed without a major impact on the day to day running of government or lasting damage to financial markets. More broadly, the decline in support for democratic values seen amongst western electorates, appears to not to have affected their Korean counterparts.
So not only is Ms Park’s presidency over but so is the system of government her family name represents. Korea still faces real challenges, most obviously from North Korea, but also an aging population, a disaffected youth and economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness. South Korea will need to make tough decisions about its future. But I’m confident it will make them democratically.
‘Choigate’ may have been lurid, it may have been painful for Korea and it may have served as a showcase for many of its worse aspects, but the nation has dealt with this once in a generation crisis like a mature democracy should. Which leads me to believe that democracy is in better shape in South Korea than it is in the bulk of the West.
*I don’t know if former Korean presidents retain their titles like American ones do. Under the circumstances, I am disinclined to grant Ms Park an honorific unless I am sure she deserves it.