Uncertainty plagues South Korea after president’s impeachment

South Korea | Political turmoil leaves opening for North Korean ‘shenanigans,’ one analyst warns
by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 12/14/16, 10:50 am

Uncertainty looms over the future of one of America’s closest Asian allies after South Korea’s National Assembly voted Friday to impeach its president over corruption charges. While the rest of the world watches the scandal unfold, analysts warn North Korea could take advantage of its neighbor’s vulnerability.

In the past few months, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, a conservative, saw her popularity rating tank to 4 percent after local media revealed she had helped a friend extort millions of dollars from Korea’s top companies. Millions of outraged protesters took to the streets in Seoul. Koreans are used to corrupt leaders, but many were shocked by the revelation because Park is the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee, who helped lift South Korea out of poverty. 

Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote, and 63 members of Park’s own Saenuri Party voted with the opposition to impeach her, 234 to 56. Park, who was in the fourth year of her five-year term, was immediately suspended and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn took over the presidential position. The country’s Constitutional Court has six months to decide whether Park violated the constitution and should be removed permanently, triggering a new election within 60 days.

The scandal that brought down South Korea’s first female president centered on her relationship with Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman-like cult leader that Park grew close to after her mother died in 1974 in an assassination attempt on her father. Once Park become president in 2012, she gave Choi unlimited access to the presidential office, confidential policy briefings, and drafts of presidential speeches to edit. 

Choi placed her cronies in high government positions (firing those who got in her way) and used her influence to channel government money to companies owned by her and her friends. She also extorted $70 million from large Korean companies such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. For Koreans, perhaps her most egregious act was using her position to get her not-so-bright daughter into the prestigious Ewha Womans University. Professors gave the teen high grades even though she never showed up to class. (A comprehensive list of Choi’s exploits can be found here.)

After the scandal broke, police arrested Choi on charges of extortion and abuse of power. Officials raided Ewha over favoritism allegations, and the school has expelled Choi’s daughter. Although Park cannot be charged, she agreed to answer prosecutors’ questions.

North Korean media responded to the scandal with glee, calling Park a “traitor” and “vegetable president.” Park has taken a hard-line approach to North Korea, enforcing tighter sanctions and refusing to engage in talks unless the North abandoned its nuclear weapons program. Park also agreed to deploy the U.S.-made THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) anti-missile system, which has greatly upset China. 

But as Park’s conservative Saenuri Party falls apart, it appears likely the next president will be a liberal, pushing to increase dialogue with North Korea and build a closer relationship with China, the country’s biggest trading partner. That also means leaning less on the United States: Opposition groups already are urging a delay in THAAD’s deployment. 

Added to the turmoil in South Korea is the uncertainty of how U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will deal with North Korea. He previously said he would like to talk with North Korean President Kim Jong-un and pull out of alliances with South Korea and Japan. But he also called Kim a “maniac.” Trump’s national security adviser nominee, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, likely will take a hard-line approach to the communist nation.

Robert Kelly, a political science professor at Pusan National University, told The Washington Post he believed the South Korean crisis could create a window of opportunity for North Korea to act. 

“Now we’re in a situation where Park is losing power, Donald Trump is off the wall, and we know North Korea likes to provoke,” he said. “This is a perfect time for some North Korean shenanigans.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

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