Since October 2016, an influence-peddling scandal has raised a groundswell of anger towards South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Members of the public took part in large rallies to voice their opposition of the president.
Park first offered to step down on November 29. The offer to resign is coined as “honorable retreat.” The offer was slammed by Park’s critics as a time-delaying divide-the-opposition tactic to buy time and stave off the impeachment process. Park said that it was to ensure national stability and smooth transition of power. The last resignation took place in 1960 after Syngman Rhee, the inaugural president of the Republic of Korea, escaped from South Korea to Hawaii after massive protests against his administration on charges of corruption and authoritarianism. Several rounds of mass protests had taken place against Park.
On December 9, after legislators secured the requisite 2/3s of the parliament to launch the impeachment process, South Korea’s parliament voted to impeach Park. The Constitutional Court must decide whether to uphold the motion, a process that could take up to 180 days. Park’s duties will be assumed by Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn on an interim basis until the court rules. The impeachment against a President last took place in 2004 against Roh Moo-hyun for transgressing electoral regulation.
Choi Soon-sil, the figure in the center of the storm and a longtime confidante of Park, has been accused of extorting funds from South Korean firms, including the country’s all-powerful chaebols who allegedly had to pay out tens of millions of dollars to two foundations administered by Choi. It was also alleged by Park’s rivals and opposition camp that in 2014, Choi’s family pushed out the head of a South Korean daily that carried news of the Choi family’s attempt to exert undue political influence. South Korea has a fiercely-defended environment of press freedom and is hailed as a vibrant liberal democracy, along with Japan and Taiwan in Northeast Asia.
State prosecutors alleged Park assisted Choi and officially identified Park as a criminal suspect. Park was alleged to have passed on confidential state documents to Choi illegally. The Supreme Prosecutor office, which is a part of the government and an ally for the Presidential Office, seems to be aligned against Park for now. Park’s identification as a criminal suspect occurs for the first time for a South Korean President but she cannot be indicted while still holding the presidential post.
This is a spectacular fall from grace for a South Korean president celebrated for being the first female in the presidential office in South Korea. Her contributions to improved Korean-Japanese relations and re-invigorated Korean-US relations must be noted, as well as a good working relationship with Beijing.