The Korean crisis explained

On the first day of my studies in Seoul, I was told there was a new attendance policy; if I missed 20% of lectures, I would receive an automatic ‘F’. Surprising, as for UK students 20% attendance can seem like a good semester. It was then explained that stricter rules were required for everyone as Chung Yoo-ra had received preferential treatment at the university next-door and consequently, her professors had been arrested.

Chung is the daughter of Choi Soon-sil, the aide and family friend to former President Park Geun-hye. Choi is at the centre of the corruption scandal, having colluded with Park to pocket millions in bribes from some of South Korea’s largest conglomerates and win influence through donations.

Choi’s daughter’s preferential treatment at university included graduate students writing and submitting papers on her behalf, the admissions department fabricating entry requirements, and professors marking her as present when she was publicly in Europe. A change in my university’s attendance policy may seem trivial (and slightly annoying for me), but it is an example of how every part of Choi and Park’s lives are being investigated, and how far-reaching the effects of Korea’s corruption scandal, and subsequent impeachment, are.

The unanimous decision by the Constitutional Court to uphold the impeachment of Park was made on Friday (10 March 2017). Both pro-Park and anti-Park protests took to the street and there were three confirmed fatalities. On Saturday the mood was more jubilant, with dancers, singers on the backs of colourfully-bannered-lorries and a ramped up police presence to separate the two sides. Police with riot shields were bussed in and around City Hall in the evening I counted at least forty coaches (all carrying around twenty-five fully-armoured riot police). Columns of these police were then placed on street corners, waiting for the passing parade.

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Official statistics note that around 70% of Koreans support the impeachment. This is 20% more than the percentage of votes Park won back in 2012, which was the highest share since Korea introduced free and fair elections. This was also when she won the epithet; ‘Queen of Elections’

This entire episode has shaken the bedrock of Korea’s development over the past fifty years, calling into question the electoral system, the companies on which Korea’s GDP depends, and the resilience of judicial oversight. The past half-century is intimately linked to Park, which explains the generational divide in this scandal (as I could see from the number of United States and Israeli flags waved in the protests). Most pro-Park protestors are old enough to remember Park’s father, Park Chung Hee, who oversaw the dramatic transformation of Korea as President in the 1960s and 70s.

Until 1970 many Koreans had been left in a position of poverty, as the façade of constitutional government decided to continue war-measures in both resources and internal security. Korea became more prosperous with economic development under Park’s father, but issues of the divided peninsula led to both her parents being assassinated, first her mother in 1975 then her father in 1979. Park became the ‘People’s Princess’ as her father’s de facto first lady for the final five years of his life and rule.

Perhaps this idealised memory of Park, her empathetic story, and re-emergence in the late 1990s enabled her persona to be above the ‘swamp’ (to borrow a Trumpism). Her election was fought on grounds of being incorruptible; both parents dead, siblings estranged and famously unmarried. It happened to be, as per her repeated line of defence, “too much trust in a friend” that saw her demise. Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt here for the French Presidential Election.

Park has broken at least two records; the first head of state to be impeached and the first female head of state. There is purpose in mentioning her gender as in Korea it was not just a milestone for milestone’s sake, but a true demonstration of a woman’s achievements. Korea has the largest gender wage-gap out of all OECD countries and even if you believe wage-gaps are not the best measure of gender inequality, the protests and Park’s impeachment have revitalised some Neo-Confucian thinking about women’s place in society. In the Choson dynasty people believed earthquakes and bad harvests were divine signs that people were not cultivating their life to its given purpose. Today some blame the protests on Park not living up to the Neo-Confucian ideal of a woman.

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Since the scandal broke, Park has been residing in the Presidential Blue House (colloquially known as ‘Korea’s version of the White House’), where she began her public life at the age of 22 grieving with her father. She left over the weekend, in a limousine tailed by press on motorbikes.

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There will be an election in the next 60 days, but with a betrayed population who waited months for a definitive answer and took to the streets every weekend, any candidate must bind together the inter-generational divide and be royally incorruptible – more so than Park, the People’s Princess and the Queen of Elections, who has been rightly dethroned.


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