Political turmoil stemming from accusations of influence peddling continues to roil the administration of South Korean President Park Geun Hye. While allegations that Park leaked state documents to a longtime confidant and a cult leader are still being investigated, she has been forced to react to public anger and a plummeting approval rating. The scandal will hang over the remaining year left in her term, limiting her effectiveness, and could also end her political career. The situation has also reignited the outcry over the country’s longstanding problems with corruption and government mismanagement.
Despite Park’s attempts to mollify her critics, include a major reshuffling of her staff on Oct. 30, anger continues to boil. Thousands had marched in Seoul the day before, demanding her resignation. But despite the street protests and online outrage directed at Park, at this point, there appears to be no serious movement to begin impeachment proceedings. However, some members of Park’s ruling Saenuri Party have started to distance themselves from her. The party also attempted an accommodation with the opposition by publicly demanding a cabinet reshuffle and offering to form a unity government across arty lines. The main opposition Democratic Party has so far rejected those overtures, watching to see where the investigation of Park leads.
Park’s plummeting fortunes, while certainly dramatic, are not unprecedented. Despite nearly three decades of democracy, the country’s entrenched and nepotistic bureaucracy, the collusive relationships between politicians and business conglomerates, and the cultural emphasis on family and regional ties have made high-level political scandals common. Park’s tendency of relying on her inner circle of acquaintances — some tied to corruption — had long drawn public skepticism and engendered doubts about the motivations behind some of her policies.
The end of almost every South Korean president’s term has been peppered with scandals driven by the country’s confrontational political atmosphere. By design, the South Korean system is structured to limit the influence of any party or individual, a reaction to its history of autocratic rule. There are frequent elections, and the president, who has no vice president, is limited to one five-year term. Although these rules have prevented any individual from dominating the political system, they have also created a disruptive political environment with little reliability or continuity.
However the current scandal shakes out, Park’s political power has been largely diminished. Any significant policy initiatives from her office that require parliamentary approval almost certainly will be contested, even by members of her own party seeking to gain political advantage. The political tumult will limit Seoul’s ability to cope both with its sluggish economy and the security threat from ongoing North Korean nuclear build up. This could affect or even jeopardize proposals such as the intelligence-sharing pact with Japan or the ongoing discussion over the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. Meanwhile, the scandal has offered an outlet for the growing national frustration over lagging economic growth and ongoing problems at South Korean conglomerates, including Samsung Electronics and Hanjin Shipping Co.