South Korea’s bizarre political crisis: What you need to know

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We’re used to North Korea making news, but in the last few weeks South Korea has been shaken by huge protests demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye over her ties to a mysterious and influential shaman.

Here’s everything you need to know about the crisis.

Who is President Park Geun-hye?

Park Geun-hye is the first female president of South Korea and the daughter of former president Park Chung-hee.

Mr Park, a military dictator, ruled from 1963 to 1979. He was just the third president of South Korea, which was created by the Cold War division of Korea in 1948.

Ms Park’s mother and Mr Park’s wife, Yuk Young-soo, was assassinated by a North Korean sympathiser in Seoul in 1974.

At just 22 years old, Ms Park moved into the Blue House, South Korea’s equivalent of the White House, where she assumed the role of first lady.

That ended abruptly in 1979 when her father was assassinated by the chief of his own security forces.

Who is this mysterious shaman?

While Ms Park resided in the Blue House during the 70s, she developed a close friendship with Choi Tae-Min, the leader of a now-defunct religious cult.

Mr Choi, a former soldier and Buddhist monk, claimed that Ms Park’s deceased mother spoke to him in his dreams.

“He developed a very close relationship with her in the 1970s where he was able to amass enormous wealth because he leveraged his closeness to the presidential family,” explains Dr Ruth Barraclough, a South Korea expert at ANU.

When Mr Choi died in 1994, his daughter Choi Soon-sil also developed a strong relationship with Ms Park. Ms Choi has been described as a “Rasputin-esque” figure and even accused of conducting occult rituals on government property.

What are the current protests about?

In recent weeks hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Seoul over accusations that Ms Park allowed Ms Choi to access classified documents.

The protests, the largest the country has seen since the end of military rule in the 1980s, have seen more than 20,000 police officers deployed to protect the Blue House.

Last month, Ms Choi was formally charged with abuse of authority, coercion and fraud. It is alleged that Ms Choi used her relationship with Ms Park to extort millions of dollars from major South Korean firms, using some of the money to pay for her daughter’s equestrian training in Germany.

Protesters and opposition parties have accused Ms Park of assisting Ms Choi and are demanding her resignation. Ms Park’s approval ratings have sunk to a virtually unprecedented 0 per cent.

She has apologised in three televised addresses to the nation, but has so far refused to step down.

What is likely to happen now?

On Tuesday Ms Park addressed the nation to announce she would work with parliament to find a way to step down. She did not, however, resign.

Opposition MPs slammed the speech as a “trick” and said Ms Park should resign immediately.

South Korea’s National Assembly meets on Friday to vote on whether to impeach Ms Park, a motion that would require 200 out of the chamber’s 300 votes.

If the impeachment vote were to pass, Ms Park would be suspended immediately. After that, six out of nine judges on the nation’s Constitutional Court would need to approve the impeachment.

Whatever the result, it seems unlikely Ms Park will remain president for long.

Does South Korea have a corruption problem?

Ms Park is not the only person to have been drawn into the corruption scandal, which has seen the offices of some of South Korea’s largest corporations, including LG and Samsung, raided by the police.

She’s not even the first president to have been accused of corruption in recent years. Roh Moo-hyun, the president from 2003-2008, committed suicide while under investigation for taking bribes and Ms Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, was forced to apologise after his brother was jailed for taking money.

Brian Myers, an American academic based in Korea, points to the lack of a serious deterrent as a major contributor to corruption in South Korea.

“South Koreans do not have much time for the notion of inborn evil,” he said. “This is reflected in what I, as an American, would consider very light punishments even for violent crimes, but especially for things that President Park may well end up convicted for, like corruption or the abuse of power.

“Those punishments have always been too light to act as a deterrent. Why not be on the take if the worst case scenario is that you spend two or three years in a rather cushy prison?”

Does this crisis say something deeper about South Korea?

According to Dr Barraclough, Ms Park’s lack of popularity is linked to her response to the sinking of the ferry MV Sewol in 2014, in which 304 passengers died, and the perception that the country is heading in the wrong direction.

An investigation revealed that the ferry had been heavily overloaded, and many blamed a lax regulatory culture and increasing casualisation of the workforce following neoliberal reforms in response to the Asian Financial Crisis.

“While the rescue effort was this terrible shambles, the president was unable to be found,” said Dr Barraclough. “She appeared unable to understand or care about the magnitude of this tragedy.”

The demonstrations that followed, according to Dr Barraclough, focused on South Korea’s relentless push for economic growth at the expense of public safety.

“I think that was a precursor to what we’re seeing today,” she said.

abc.net

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