Park Geun-hye, the president of South Korea, has lately been engulfed by a scandal that may bring down her administration. Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend and mentor of the president, allegedly used her relationship with Park to extort money from South Korea’s largest corporations (chaebols). Corruption scandals, abuse of power, kickbacks, embezzlement, and so on, are, unfortunately, established problems in South Korea, as they are in many democracies. “Choi-gate,” as it has inevitably become named, attracts so much attention, however, because of the sheer oddity of Choi’s relationship to the president.
A Korean Rasputin?
Choi’s relationship with Park goes back to the 1970s, when Choi’s father befriended Park’s family in the wake of Park’s mother’s assassination. Choi the elder claimed he could speak to Park’s mother’s spirit, and he seems to have led some kind of shamanistic cult. It is unclear how much Park was taken in by all this, but a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks noted long-standing rumors that the Choi family had “complete control over Park’s body and soul.” The Chois’ influence on Park has repeatedly been likened to Rasputin’s influence over Russian Czar Nicholas II. Choi the younger was given all sorts of curious access to the Blue House (the South Korean equivalent of the White House) including oversight of the presidential wardrobe, staffing decisions (e.g., having Choi’s personal trainer hired), and editorial input on Park’s speeches.
It is unclear at the moment if that relationship involved criminal activity. Park, like any politician, is entitled to personal friendships, and democratic office-holders have long sought the counsel of old friends who do not necessarily have rich topical expertise but whom are nonetheless deeply trusted. On assuming the American presidency, Harry Truman is rumored to have said, “I need some Missouri around me,” by which he meant long-time friends from his home state whom he trusted more than the experts around him from the Roosevelt administration.
Nevertheless, the sheer oddness, utter lack of credentials, and wide influence Choi had is bizarre and disturbing. As one AFP journalist put it: “Why so much fury over Choi in Korea? Imagine if your head of state had a Gypsy palm reader as a key aide and let her handle cabinet formation/policy.”
Korean Presidential Scandals
Park’s defenders note that South Korean presidents regularly get in trouble for corruption and cronyism. Indeed, this is true. Every South Korean president since democratization has been investigated after he left office; some have gone to jail, and one even killed himself over the allegations. More generally, South Korea’s Transparency International score for corruption is a mediocre 56 out of 100 possible points. Corruption is so widespread that South Korea recently enacted an extremely tough anti-graft law. It is also true that Korean presidents routinely suffer crashing approval ratings.
In this sense Park is in good (bad) company. Just consider the previous three presidents:
Lee Myung-bak (president from 2008-13) got entangled in a corruption scandal involving his family and political associates, mostly involving bribery. Lee, like Park, was forced to make a public apology. Lee was also questioned regarding stock manipulation, and his signature Four Rivers project was dogged by allegations that it was far too elaborate and olympian to reasonably succeed and was thus really about kickbacks to cronies in the construction industry.
Roh Moo-hyun (president from 2003-2008) was also pulled into a family corruption scandal involving bribery. He too felt compelled to apologize and committed suicide over the issue.
Kim Dae-jung (president from 1998-2003), we now know, effectively bribed Kim Jong-il to participate in the “Sunshine” process with a cash payment of $500 million. He too got sucked into a family bribery scandal.
What makes Park’s trouble unique in this otherwise depressing history of pay-to-play is the oddity of her scandal. This is not a typical or “understandable” scandal. Scandals over money, political power, sex, or helping friends and family are comprehensible, if still deplorable, because we all suffer from those weaknesses. What sets Park’s troubles apart is that she went to such great lengths to help someone whom most of us would immediately have tagged as a grifter and a charlatan. When Richard Nixon paid off Howard Hunt during Watergate, both were sharp characters looking for a serious pay-off over a major issue. It was illegal but deadly serious.
By contrast, Park looks like a dilettante. What she ever saw in an obvious con-artist like Choi; what serious benefit Park ever got from the relationship; and why she allowed Choi to manipulate her so easily for so long baffles the entire country. Park comes out of this looking, not like a Nixonian schemer, but a lightweight mark conned by a snake oil salesman. How does one ascend to the presidency of a major country which simultaneously being a marionette to some weird Rasputin character?
South Koreans strike me as more mystified and unnerved, rather than dismayed, at their president. As one K-blogger put it, what is so strange is how utterly irrational Park’s downfall is compared to other Korean presidents’ “normal” corruption.
The Future of Corruption in Korea
Park’s case is so bizarre that I doubt it will have lasting impact on the corruption debate in South Korea. Her presidency is probably fatally wounded, but Choi-gate does not touch on the sources of more normal corruption in Korea: a deeply rooted gift-giving culture and a large, intrusive state.
The giving of gifts is an important social bonding mechanism in Korea, which, when transferred to professional environments, can appear like bribery. Successive governments have struggled with this; it would be a shame if the healthy instinct of communitarian generosity inherent in gift-giving were criminalized. Nevertheless, the government is now taking a hardline with the new anti-graft law.
Meanwhile, the South Korean developmentalist state is very active in the economy. It routinely directs resources toward favored sectors and companies (“picking winners”), opening ample space for business and political elites to interact regarding money. The opportunities for graft are as obvious as they are extensive. These are the sorts of relationships that have repeatedly done in Korean political and chaebol elites. Until the state steps back from the economy, such scandals will continue.
The good news, however, is that corruption in South Korea is often uncovered and subject to scrutiny. Prosecutors pursue it, and the public gets incensed. All this sunlight should eventually improve the situation as future grifters and cheaters must reckon with the likelihood that they will be caught and punished. South Korea, for all its corruption, is not like Russia or many other states far down on the Transparency International index. Corruption is routinely revealed, and even top officials are punished for it. Cleaning out the dirt may ugly, but it is happening. It is not swept under the rug, as in so many other places.
As for Park, my own sense is that this is a friendship run badly amok. Park’s parents were both assassinated; she is estranged from her siblings; she never married; and she has few personal friends and a distant demeanor. It sounds a lot like she was lonely and lost sight of proper boundaries. Park herself, in a statement on Friday, admitted that she “over-relied” on Choi and was willing to “overlook her shortcomings” due to their close personal relationship.
Choi’s influence was likely inappropriate and unethical, but it is not obviously criminal. Barring some bombshell revelation, I doubt Park Geun-hye will step down.
Robert E. Kelly is a a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea.