The president of South Korea Park Geun-hye was involved in the most severe corruption scandal in her four-year presidency. She was accused of releasing official documents to her friend Choi Soon-sil. She was also blamed for forcing big companies, such as Samsung and Hyundai, to make donations into two non-profit organizations. Thousands of citizens took the street, holding banners and forcing Ms. Park to resign. Her approval ratings decreased rapidly. According to a Gallup poll released on Nov. 4th, Her approval ratings went down to 5 percent, which was the lower than any former presidents in South Korea. Media of South Korea called this scandal as “Choi Soon-sil Gate”.
Unequal admission of Choi’s daughter became the stimulus
The intimate relationship between Ms. Park and Choi has been found after the event of students’ protest in the Ewha Womans University. First, students in the Ewha Womans University complained on a school online forum that professors gave Jeong Yoo-ra, the daughter of Choi, good grades despite her long absence from classes. Students discussed Jeong on the campus and said that it was because she had a powerful person standing behind her. In addition, it has been found that Jeong received special favors when she was admitted. Students felt that they were treated unequally, so they held several rallies and protests demanding the president’s further explanation. On Nov. 17, the president of Ewha Womans University resigned, under the pressure of the accusation--“undemocratic operation of the school and involvement in corruption” (The Korean Herald, 2016/10/17).
After hearing the protest in Ewha Womans University, Choi escaped to the Germany in order to be away from public anger. Journalists found 44 government documents saved on Choi’s abandoned computer. According to related security laws, all these documents should be kept secret. However, it was found that marks and notes had been added to these documents, which meant Choi reviewed the documents and gave some suggestions. As an unauthorized individual, Choi was accused of being involved with policy-making process and changing the national policy in her favor.
Involved corruption was discovered
Choi was also accused of forcing big companies to donate over 69 million dollars to two foundations that she controlled. The Financial Time said that these big companies included Samsung, LG, etc. Taking the Samsung as an example, this company was suspected of transferring 3.1 million dollars to a company owned by Choi in Germany. People also suspected that Samsung has secretly funded Choi’s daughter to be a dressage rider. South Koreans were shocked by the power of Choi and her families. As more information has been exposed by the media, South Koreans thought that Choi had created a secret group called “the eight fairies” to give suggestions to Ms. Park behind the scenes (The Washington Post, 10/29/2016). The eight Women have worked in different industries and companies, such as Hyundai, Hanwha, Korea Development Bank (KDB), etc. As the corruption index from the Transparency International organization showed, South Korea scored 56 out of 100 in 2015. Scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Now, citizens feel that the degree of corruption is much higher than they thought.
On Oct. 30, Choi went back to Seoul from Germany. It was her first time that she appeared in public after the accusation. She said, “I have committed a deadly sin, please forgive me” (Yonhap News Agency, 10/31/2016). Even though Choi apologized to the public, people still felt angry and chanted outside the Blue House (presidential palace) “Down with Park Geun-hye!” and “Arrest Choi Soon-sil!”.
President Park admitted of sharing “certain documents” with Choi. She said, “She (Choi) continued to help me for a certain period of time after I took office” (BBC, 10/31/2016). In order to assuage the public anger and regain the public trust, she replaced the country’s prime minister, fired eight presidential aides, and also replaced her chief economic minister and domestic safety minister. Such actions could not ease people’s anger. On Nov. 13, over 100,000 people protested on the streets and called for President Park’s resignation. CNN commented on this event as “It was one of the biggest anti-government protests the country has seen in decades.”
Voices/actions in South Korea
A review published by Korea Expose Magazine described Choi as a person who rarely made public appearances. After the corruption scandal of President Park, citizens felt that Ms. Park had hidden too many things from the public and she lied to every one. As one of the protesters on Nov. 13, the high school student Chi Hee Jung said, “She says so many lies and she's a liar, but we didn't know that for a long time and now we have to speak loud.” (CNN, 11/13/2016)
Although Ms. Park have apologized twice to the public, reshuffled several top officials and accepted investigation from the prosecutor, people still felt angry and called for her resignation. In earlier November, Ms. Park delivered a speech on television and said “I have already instructed the Blue House secretary's office and security office to fully co-operate with the prosecutor's investigation” (CNN, 11/13/2016). All these actions could not assuage people’s anger. Protesters took the streets and chanted in the square of central Seoul, holding banners with “Park Geun-hye out” and “Treason by a secret government”. Choi Kyung-ha, a mother of three children, explained the reason why she joined the protest, “I came out today because this is not the country I want to pass on to my children. My kids have asked me who Choi Soon-sil was and whether she's the real president, and I couldn't provide an answer.” (Chicago Tribune, 11/05/2016)
The influence on U.S.-South Korea relations and deployment of THAAD
President Park Geun-hye played an important role in deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. THAAD is a missile defense system conducted by the United States. The cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea on THAAD system can maintain the U.S. power on the Korean peninsula, put pressure on North Korea and balance the power of China and Russia. The corruption scandal of Ms. Park brought the concern about whether the execution of THAAD on South Korea would continue or not.
Benjamin Lee, a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, thought that “South Korea would most likely delay and potentially even cancel the deployment of THAAD batteries” based on the analysis of current situation (the Diplomat, 2016/11/03). It was because the South Koreans showed a level of disagreement about the deployment of THAAD. For example, local people protested when Park government announced putting the THAAD battery in Seongju, the central area of South Korea. The opposition parties in South Korea also showed disagreement with President Park’s decision on THAAD. They suggested that the National Assembly should have rights to vote on the issue of deployment.
In addition, Russia and China consistently opposed the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. After hearing the official announcement of THAAD deployment, the Russian Foreign Ministry expressed a very serious concern about it. They also warned that this event would bring dangerous consequences to Russian-South Korean relations.
The deployment of THAAD also brought damage to Chinese- South Korean relations. The Washington Post said that China was South Korea’s biggest trade partner and South Korea was originally ambivalent about deploying THAAD because it was afraid to break ties with China. As it predicted, China reduced the number of tourists and denied visas to express opposition to THAAD deployment. For example, over 60 percent of the bookings have been cancelled from Chinese tourists in the two weeks since South Korean announced the THAAD program (The Global Times, 2016/8/1). According to the data from Korea Tourism Organization, Chinese tourists took almost half of total foreign tourists in South Korea (Chinese tourists/ total foreign tourists= 47.7%). The reduction of Chinese tourists set pressure on South Korean’s economy and Park government. Based on all the reasons, South Korea might suspend the deployment of THAAD, and the U.S.-South Korean relations will be more complicated, when the most possible situation--Ms. Park’s resignation from the president and a reshuffle of her cabinet or administers — is considered (The Daily Caller News Foundation, 10/29/2016).
Aa an old saying goes, “A little leak will sink a great ship”. At the beginning, students protested for the unequal admission of Choi’s in the Ewha Womans University. Then, journalists found 44 government documents in Choi’s abandoned computer. As the best friend of President Park, Choi used her power to force big companies to donate money to two foundations owned by her. It was found that eight women from different industry were also involved with the corruption scandal. South Koreans felt disappointed about Ms. Park, so they chanted on the streets and called for Park’s resignation. Some protesters said that they would continue on protesting until Park resigns.
This scandal would have influence on U.S.-South Korea relations and deployment of THAAD. South Korea and U.S. officially confirmed to deploy THAAD on July 7, 2016. Park government faced lots of pressure from domestic opposition and diplomatic criticism, especially Russia and China. If Ms. Park resigned from the presidential position, the deployment of THAAD would be suspended, and American efforts on east Asia would be more complicated.
1. Corruption scandal threatens to derail South Korea’s president, Financial Times,
2. S.Korea president's approval rating falls to 5 percent: Gallup, Reuters,
3. South Korea’s Metastasizing Crisis, NY Times,
4. Strategic Implications of South Korea’s Political Scandal, Diplomatic
5. Chinese tourists cancel trips to South Korea after THAAD
6. South Korean protesters march against President again