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South Korea's political scandal leaves the country with abysmal options

South Korea's political scandal leaves the country with abysmal options
Tens of thousands of South Korean protesters in Seoul staged a rally on Nov. 19, 2016, calling for President Park Geun-hye to step down. The large rally was one of many that rocked the capital over the months leading up to President Park's impeachment by parliament. (Jung Yeon-je / Pool Photo via Associated Press)

South Korea has just 14 months until its scandal-plagued president is scheduled to leave office.

For many people here, that now seems like an eternity.

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President Park Geun-hye has recently been named a suspect in a corruption case involving her longtime confidant — a woman who prosecutors allege used personal and political connections to wield improper influence inside the government and among the nation's most powerful companies.

With historic street protests in recent weeks, the president also now faces enormous pressure — among foes and former supporters alike — to resign, a decision that could open her to criminal prosecution. The president enjoys immunity from standard criminal charges while in office.

Her political opponents have also signaled that they plan to seek impeachment, a step that, under South Korean law, could take months to reach a conclusion – and what that conclusion might be is anyone's guess.

If she stays, power vacuum. If she goes, power vacuum.


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Politically speaking, South Korea is staring into an abyss.

"She seems pretty clearly determined to try and ride it out. I'm convinced she's going to stay," said David Kang, a professor at USC   who heads its Korean Studies Institute. But, he added, "Even if I'm wrong: If she stays, power vacuum. If she goes, power vacuum."

The scandal began with the revelation that the president and two aides entrusted a woman outside government with access to sensitive government documents and political speeches. Then allegations emerged that the woman, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a deceased religious cult leader, used her connections to the president to extort more than $60 million in payments from business conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai. Choi's daughter allegedly also received special treatment at a major university, prompting the recent resignation of the school's president. The extent of Park's involvement remains unknown.

The situation has prompted widespread angst among the public, at a time when the country also faces growing uncertainty about its relationships with both the United States and other countries in the region. During his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump cast doubt on the future of security and trade agreements between South Korea and the United States. Now adding to the climate of uncertainty is the jockeying among South Korean political leaders hoping to succeed the president.

"There are potentially negative consequences for the Korean national interest," said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow in Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

This country, which faces a nuclear threat from North Korea and domestic pressure to maintain its export-driven economy, is no stranger to political corruption. Longtime Korea observers, such as Kang, say it's endemic to the culture of a group of elites in politics and business who rose to the top together as the country grew into an Asian economic power.

"It is woven into the social fabric," Kang said. "There is no possible way to legislate against it."

In Park, the daughter of an assassinated former dictator, some had hoped for an end to scandals involving top elected officials and their families, as she is unmarried, doesn't have children and is estranged from her siblings. ​​​​​But now a close friend has embroiled Park in the largest political scandal the country has seen in years. Their relationship has captured the public's attention in part because of lurid reports in the South Korean press about Choi's father forming a strong spiritual connection with Park after her mother's death in 1974.

"There's buyer's remorse in this country," said Peter Kim, who teaches U.S.-Korea relations at Kookmin University in Seoul. "There's widespread discontent and anger."

Chief prosecutor Lee Young-ryeol of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office, who heads the team investigating the matter, said recently that the president appears complicit in Choi's alleged crimes.

But Park's lawyer, Yoo Yeong-ha, has dismissed those statements as "fantasy" based on speculation and "imagination." He has said Park, who seemed poised to testify for prosecutors last week, is no longer willing to cooperate with the investigation — for now.

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Another option remaining, then, is impeachment — not a simple process. A majority of the unicameral national legislature must first back the idea, which would then have to be approved by a two-thirds vote. The opposition parties, if they stuck together, would be close to obtaining that vote, but more than two dozen members of the president's conservative party — some of whom haven't always been allied with her — would have to join them. On Tuesday, two members of Park's party announced plans to defect and back impeachment.

The effort would then have to be adjudicated in a constitutional court, a process that could take several months. If that were to happen, Park's authority would be suspended in favor of the prime minister. It's ultimately possible, though, that Park could survive the legal process, perhaps emboldening her to stay in office and even weakening any potential criminal case she might face, observers say.

Some Korea experts, like Snyder, suspect that Park's remaining aides welcome impeachment, as strange as that might sound for an elected head of state, as a political — and lengthy — resolution to the scandal.

And then there's the next presidential election, scheduled for December 2017. If Park were to resign, it would force a new election to be held much earlier, within two months of her stepping down. That would force a scramble among opposition parties and their potential leaders for power. Until recently, they have been lining up their campaigns for late next year.

A new election also would set the presidency for the next five years — not just until Park's former term expires — raising the stakes even more.

"The next 14 months are perilous for Korea," Kang said.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

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