South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Tuesday addressed a month of opposition to her embattled rule and offered to let parliament decide her fate as the country’s leader.
Plagued by a scandal involving her longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil’s apparent involvement in state affairs and embezzlement, Park made her third televised public apology over her “wrongdoings” and offered to follow the National Assembly’s direction, even if that means ending her term early.
Park’s term is scheduled to end February 2018, with her successor chosen at the end of next year. But she has repeatedly deflected growing calls for her to resign.
“I will leave everything including my own term to the legislature’s decision,” Park said in the nationally televised speech, vowing to step down as soon as parliament agrees on a transfer of power that minimizes chaos in governance.
Her national address came after her loyal supporters in the National Assembly on Monday suggested her “honorable resignation” for the country’s sake rather than her ouster through an almost inevitable impeachment process, a motion that was set to be put to parliamentary vote on Friday. Opposition parties have been pushing for her to step down immediately, while retired politicians had also suggested that she resign by next April.
“I have laid everything down,” Park said. “My only desire is for South Korea to break away from this chaotic state and return to its original course as soon as possible.”
She went further to claim that her entire 18-year political career had been spent selflessly serving the public, including her actions involving Choi. “The series of events that have occurred now are a result of my pursuit of public benefit for the nation, and I did not take a single benefit during the process,” she said.
As the scandal has unfolded since late October with media and prosecutors revealing new layers of Choi’s influence, Park’s approval rate plummeted to a historic low of 4 percent while over 1.5 million Koreans have taken to the streets in weekly protests in downtown Seoul and nationwide. The public has grown furious as Park apparently attempted to sidestep the blame of corruption by saying she put too much trust in an old friendship, but prosecutors have labeled Park and some of her close aides as Choi’s accomplices in several crimes.
Prosecutors have charged Choi, the daughter of Park’s late decades-long mentor and ex-wife of Park’s former key aide, for accessing state information as an unauthorized civilian and coercing conglomerates to donate to nonprofit organizations that were used as slush funds. The scandal even engulfed the dean of an elite university after the school suspiciously paved the way for Choi’s daughter to be admitted on its first equestrian scholarship, despite her questionable academic performance. Prosecutors in recent days also uncovered audio files recording Park speaking to her then-aide Jung Ho-seong with instructions involving Choi.
In her second public apology on November 4, Park said she would be willing to participate in an investigation if necessary, even though she is constitutionally protected from prosecution while in office. Yet she has been deflecting prosecutors’ requests for an interview. An independent counsel including members recommended by Park and the opposition is slated to begin work next month, as soon as Park confirms her candidate. Hours before her third apology Tuesday, her spokesman said the president would not delay in appointing her candidate by the Friday deadline.
Park earlier this month reshuffled her cabinet to signal a fresh start, but it further angered South Koreans who saw her, not her advisers, as the culprit. She has also put off deciding on Justice Minister Kim Hyun-woong and senior presidential secretary for civil affairs Choi Jai-kyeong’s offers last week to resign, as their vacancies could lead to further disarray in Park’s Cabinet and secretariat.
The scandal has led to government deadlock as opposition lawmakers refused to legitimize her government by operating business as usual. Losing her grip on all aspects of power from law enforcement to diplomatic relevance, Park had been laying low at the presidential Blue House for the past few weeks, holding few public events and skipping out on key diplomatic meetings. The scandal’s economic implications have been taking a toll, with markets reeling from the political uncertainty.
But main opposition Democratic Party leader Rep. Moon Jae-in, a potential presidential contender next year, rejected her latest address as a “political ploy” to avoid impeachment, as she deflected her fate to the decision of feuding lawmakers rather than take charge of her own actions.
“She made a concession that initially seemed like a big one, but as the day as worn on, no one seems to know what just happened,” says political scientist Robert Kelly of Pusan National University.
Her move to defer responsibility to the National Assembly may work in her favor as it could take months for three opposition parties and a fractured ruling party to come to agreement.
“It’s part of her delaying tactics by putting the ball in congress’ court,” says Kim Jae-chun of Sogang University. “It’s really difficult for these different political factions to talk with one voice.”
While opposition liberal parties want her to resign, ruling Saenuri Party conservatives have split over whether to appoint a neutral prime minister to manage state affairs for the rest of Park’s term or to join hands across the aisle to move for her impeachment. For Park’s impeachment motion to reach the Constitutional Court would require the two-thirds majority approval, including all opposition members and at least 28 Saenuri lawmakers.
Another line in parliament divides those who support liberal opposition Democratic Party leader Rep. Moon Jae-in and those who don’t — including the minor opposition People’s Party, led by Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, and Park’s opponents in her own Saenuri Party.
“The president assigned a difficult task to the anti-Park faction. For them, it is an important goal to prevent Moon’s election as well as to draw a clear line between them and the unpopular president,” says politics professor Choi Lyong at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
The anti-Park faction would be reluctant to vote for the impeachment without an incentive from the opposition, such as a constitutional clause that would weaken the grip of the next president — who will likely come from the opposition liberal bloc, Choi added. “The People’s Party also has a dilemma because they strongly proposed the impeachment stage but would consider the alliance with the anti-Park group.”
Kim of Sogang University says Park may have been trying to sway the anti-Park faction to change their mind against pushing for impeachment.
“I think the majority of the anti-Park faction is taken by surprise,” he said. “Yesterday the majority of the anti-Park group would have wanted to go ahead with the impeachment charge right away … Some of the anti-Park faction are thinking they have to reconsider against impeachment.”
Some observers suspect that by not resigning yet offering to reduce her term, Park is signaling for a constitutional revision to the mandate of the five-year presidential term — another politicized effort to buy time by dividing lawmakers.
Main opposition Democratic Party spokesman Rep. Youn Kwan-suk claimed that her speech lacked “self-reflection and repentance,” insisting again on following the public’s wishes for her resignation and reaffirming the party’s push for her impeachment.