The people versus Park


S Mubashir Noor

Contrary to popular belief in Pakistan, shady alliances are not uniquely the staple of local politicians. South Korean President Park Geun-hye is a recent case in point. While Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may feel he is being unfairly singled out in the wake of Panama Papers scandal, his troubles are minuscule when compared to Park’s. After all, international auditors have determined Sharif’s tax returns for the year 2011-12 are in order, and Sharif has managed to forestall another nationwide ‘dharna’ (sit-in) campaign by cutting a deal with his nemesis, Imran Khan, over the Supreme Court commission overseeing the Panama Leaks case. He should rejoice while he can because politics is a fickle mistress. Meanwhile, Park, the daughter of South Korea’s original strongman Park Chung-hee, faces a popular revolt at home over accusations of cronyism and abetting corruption. If the mass public movement against her government currently underway does not quell, she may be forced to resign prematurely. Unforeseen in postwar Korean politics, Park’s latest approval ratings have plummeted to just five percent with 20 months remaining in her single term as president. Moreover, on November 5, an estimated 200,000 people gathered at Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul, demanding Park pay for her indiscretions. This protest was significantly larger than the one a week earlier, which drew around 30,000 angry citizens. Park’s relationship with her friend of 40 years, Choi Soon-sil, is at the centre of this political crisis. She has long been accused of running South Korea through a shadowy inner circle, but the charges this time are far more grave and likely to stick. Today, critics accuse Park of allowing Choi to run an extortion racket from the Blue House, the official residence of Korean heads of state, and meddling in state matters without an official title. Choi is rumored to have blackmailed $69 million out of big businesses as donations to two foundations she controls, using her influence on Park as a threat. Moreover, Choi pushed Park to make preferential government appointments and even participated in major policy decisions. Her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra, is also believed to have enjoyed unearned educational perks through her mother’s connections, something scandalous in a society that places a premium on learning and hard work. Most alarmingly, and the president has already admitted to this, Choi edited some of Park’s most important speeches and had ready access to state secrets. Some Korean commentators contend Choi’s friendship with Park is a sham. They say she is an opportunist who preyed on Park’s insecurities after her mother and father were assassinated within five years of each other in the 1970s.Choi’s father, a fringe religious leader name Choi Tae-min who legend has it held Rasputin-like mystical powers, was Park’s original confidante. A US diplomatic cable made public by Wikileaks in 2007 presented their relationship as follows: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years, and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” Their relationship ostensibly began as a promise by Choi the elder to help Park contact her dead mother. It is unknown whether he ever delivered on the promise. And after daddy moved on, the younger Choi simply replaced him in Park’s inner circle. Now the gravy train has derailed.Park, who blames her parasitic friendship with Choi on her “lonely life” as president, has quickly moved to reshuffle her kitchen cabinet to stem the tide of negative press. Alongside two teary-eyed apologies to the nation, Park has fired eight of her top aides, including chief of staff, while Choi faces jail-time for fraud and unduly interfering in the affairs of the state. Park’s right-hand man, Jeong Ho-Seong, has also been arrested for unlawfully passing official documents to Choi, including her speeches. That said, Choi is merely the straw that broke the politician’s back. Mutterings of discontent over Park’s rule have been gaining decibels since early last year. Park’s legislative and economic track records are both underwhelming. In parliament, she constantly runs into opposition stonewalling on key policy bills designed to revitalise the economy and shape her legacy. And since her party Saenuri has been hanging on by a sliver-thin majority, Park cannot force the issue. Only 30 percent of legislation introduced by ruling party lawmakers in parliament has passed. Macroeconomic indicators have also worsened on her watch. Unemployment has been on the rise, especially among the under-30 set. Youth unemployment inflated to 12.5 percent in February, its worst showing since 1999. To boot, economic growth has turned anemic under Park, averaging 2.9 percent compared to the 3.2 percent in previous years. South Korea, often touted as a bellwether of global trade trends, has also witnessed a sharp plunge in exports for 14 straight months and set alarm bells ringing internationally. So has the rapid accumulation of domestic household debt, which now stands at a record one trillion dollars. The slowdown of China’s economy coupled with cheap oil has also adversely impacted technology-exporting nations like South Korea on two fronts. First, Beijing is Seoul’s number one trading partner, yet exports fell by almost 16 percent between January and April this year. Two, China’s diminished appetite for raw materials has slashed the spending power of many commodity-exporters in emerging markets that buy Korean products.

This is particularly problematic for a country where exports account for almost 50 percent of GDP, and nearly 60 percent of these are bound for emerging markets. This year alone, shipments to these markets saw a dip of 15 percent, continuing on a downward trend from nine percent last year. To compound Park’s woes, critics accuse her of being indecisive on national security matters after tempers again flared on the Korean peninsula following the recent clutch of nuclear tests by the communist regime up north. Additionally, the Baek Nam-gi affair that sparked the ongoing mass protests refuses to die down.

Baek, a farmer and activist who died in September following a protracted coma after getting pummelled by police water-cannons last year, has become the totem of liberal forces seeking to upend Park’s government. They accuse her of willfully curbing free speech and regressing democracy in the pursuit of an autocratic, dynastic South Korea. Ordinary Koreans agree, and recent polls indicate 42 percent of them want Park gone. The next few weeks could decide whether President Park Geun-hye will transcend her troubles and regain the public trust, or be shown the exit like Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff.