Troubled Seoul–The turmoil in Korea–47fh.,b4
It was probably not the most traumatic moment of Park Geun-hye’s life. In 1974, after all, Park’s mother, then the first lady of South Korea, was assassinated by a North Korea sympathizer in a crowded Seoul theater. Only five years later, her father, the long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, was offed by his own spy chief after a banquet in central Seoul.
But Park Geun-hye’s appearance at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office on March 21 was nonetheless a watershed moment for a woman who has spent most of her 65 years in and around the corridors of power. She was the first daughter of South Korea and after her mother’s murder officially deemed the country’s first lady. Later, she served as a conservative member of the National Assembly, before being elected president of this nation of 50 million in 2012.
South Korea has been officially president-less since December 9, when the National Assembly voted for Park’s impeachment. She was immediately suspended from office—though allowed to remain in the Blue House—while the Constitutional Court deliberated whether to accept the National Assembly’s decision. (The country’s prime minister assumed presidential duties following Park’s impeachment, though, appropriately, he has treated this largely as a caretaker role.) In early March, the unanimous decision came down: Park was out. A new president will be elected May 9.
Park needed to go, but South Koreans sure picked an awfully inconvenient time to not have a president. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump delighted in bashing South Korea, claiming that the close U.S. ally doesn’t pay enough for the presence of U.S. forces in the country. (Though the numbers have fallen slightly, more than 28,000 U.S. servicemen are still stationed here, guarding against North Korean invasion.) Trump also bemoaned South Korea’s industrial policies, lamenting, for example, that Korea has become a powerhouse for television manufacturing, a business that all but dried up in the United States a generation ago.
Park’s downfall began last October, when news surfaced of the president’s bizarrely close relationship with a lifelong female friend, Choi Soon-sil. Choi, despite having no official role in government or even a security clearance, had Rasputin-like levels of influence over Park. She edited the president’s speeches; told her what to wear; dictated orders to Park’s official aides. Choi had access to at least 47 confidential government documents.
Choi’s father also had a longstanding relationship with Park. He was a religious flim-flam man, dubbed a “pseudo-pastor” by his own country’s CIA, who initially got close to Park by telling her that her dead mother had appeared in his dreams. Like father, like daughter: According to various reports, the younger Choi is also a self-styled “shaman fortune-teller” who acted the part of Park’s puppeteer.
Park’s relationship with the Chois was unusual, to be sure—and indeed, there are longstanding rumors here that the president secretly gave birth to a child by Ms. Choi’s father. But the relations appear to have been criminal as well. Leveraging her close connections with the president, Choi, working in league with several of the president’s aides, allegedly extorted around $60 million from South Korea’s chaebol—the massive conglomerates that dominate the economy here. The scandal has felled Samsung’s chief, who was arrested in February for paying nearly $40 million in bribes to Choi. Choi herself is also facing prosecution. And former president Park was arrested on March 31, on suspicion of bribery and abuse of authority, among other charges.
Even so, the extent of her political incompetence is shocking. At the outset of the scandal, Park appears to have lied, telling the nation that she merely sought advice on speeches and public relations from Choi. Throughout her downfall, she essentially refused to apologize, offering half-baked statements of regret. And she has looked laughably out of touch, cloistered in the Blue House: As the protests swelled, in one Trumpian moment, Park hilariously suggested that there might have been twice as many demonstrators supporting her as there were marching against her.
North Korean media have delighted in Park’s downfall, celebrating first the demonstrations in Seoul and then her impeachment. That they were inadvertently promoting democracy by showing South Koreans exercising rights that North Koreans are denied seems to have been lost on Pyongyang’s crack editors. The North Korean regime detested some of the actions Park took, most notably shuttering the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a ridiculous vestige of Kim Dae-jung’s turn-of-the-millennium “Sunshine Policy,” whereby South Korean companies paid North Korean workers to assemble products. Needless to say, most of the “salaries” paid to the workers were funneled directly to the North Korean regime.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is proving to be different from, even worse than his late father, Kim Jong-il. It’s not just that the young dauphin has rapidly moved ahead with his country’s missile and nuclear weapons programs while undertaking a vicious set of purges at home. Nor is it only the brazen assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in a crowded Malaysian airport, ordered by the regime and committed with an internationally banned chemical weapon. He seems as well to have a different view of the purpose of his nuclear program than his father did.
For the Kim regime, nukes have always been non-negotiable; they were seen as the only way to prevent a U.S.-led invasion. They’ll only give them up if they have no other choice.
Kim Jong-un, by contrast, appears to take a rather more expansive view of what his arsenal can achieve. As the astute Korea-watcher B. R. Myers noted last year, under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, Pyongyang’s propaganda has increasingly touted “autonomous unification,” a term that “has always stood for the conquest or subjugation of South Korea after nullification or removal of the U.S. military presence.” Myers further reports that Kim has been promoting “final victory” in addresses to North Korea’s military. This is alarming, for Kim’s vision of “final victory” is a unified Korea—under his dictatorship. When it came to North Korea, Obama sat on his hands for eight years, though he gussied up this lack of action by giving it a fancy name and pretending it was a policy: “strategic patience.” Then he passed off the problem like a hot potato. When Trump took office, Obama reportedly told the new president that North Korea was the gravest threat he would face.
The usual suspects—legions of newspaper columnists, think tank denizens, and Twittering pundits, who, ignoring history, continue to promote “engagement” with the North Korean regime—reacted with predictable horror.
Last July, the United States and South Korea announced plans to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, in a bid to protect U.S. troops and South Koreans from North Korean missiles.
Beijing—claiming spuriously that the system will be used to spy on China—has reacted ferociously. Beijing has banned South Korean celebrities from entering China, where they’re wildly popular, barred Korean movies from Chinese cinemas, and closed more than 50 Lotte department stores in China, citing “fire safety”—perhaps the only time in recorded history that the Chinese regime has taken safety regulations seriously. (Lotte, a Korean chaebol, had recently ceded a golf course it owns to the Korean government to use as a THAAD staging ground—surely a coincidence.) In mid-March, the Beijing regime banned Chinese group tours to Korea, a tough blow given that nearly half of the foreign tourists to South Korea hail from China. Indeed, whole shopping districts in Seoul have in recent years reconfigured themselves to appeal to Chinese tastes; one of them, Myeongdong, was utterly devoid of shoppers, Chinese or otherwise, on a recent afternoon.
The most profound division in Korea is the DMZ, a man-made abomination that since 1953 has cleaved a country that was unified for thousands of years in two. But South Korean society is deeply split as well: between young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban. On the electoral level, broadly speaking, the divisions mirror those in the West: The old tend to vote conservative, the young lean more liberal. Increased educational attainment seems to correlate with moving leftward as well. Professor Jung Kim, an expert on South Korean domestic politics at the University of North Korean Studies, tells me that the poor tend to be the most conservative voters in South Korea—though poverty is correlated with increased age.
After the transition to democracy, those associated with the military governments tended to move into the conservative political parties, and dyed-in-the-wool democrats moved left. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that even today, some South Korean conservatives have had a hard time adjusting to governing democratically. Park Geun-hye was no exception: Her aides drew up a “blacklist” of writers and artists who were hostile to her administration and banned them from receiving government funds. (This manifestly anti-democratic action resulted in the arrest of her culture minister.) And she led a failed effort to overhaul South Korean school textbooks, in a way, critics said, that glorified her dictator dad. The divisions in Korea, then, aren’t just typical left-right fights: They also reflect latent attitudes about democracy and dictatorship.
Park messed things up so badly in office that her party has split in two; renegade conservative lawmakers bolted and have created a new conservative party, the Bareun. Park’s old party, meanwhile, Saenuri, has opted for a rebranding: It’s now calling itself the Liberty Korea party. There’s also a centrist candidate in the mix drawing double-digit support.
Professor Jung Kim suggests that’s because attitudes towards North Korea are already baked in the cake: Barring an actual missile strike on Seoul, he says, nothing North Korea does will affect the electorate. The South Korean electorate may be unique in that increasing threats do not necessarily push voters to the right.
One thing is certain: Moon will pursue warmer relations with North Korea and China. And he’ll have widespread public support for the latter, given that China exerts great economic power over its smaller neighbor. Objectively speaking, South Korea is not a small country—at 50 million people strong, it’s only a little less populous than South Africa—but sandwiched between Japan and China, it feels like one to them. The urge to tilt towards China will be profound.
source- ethan epstein, weekly std, jung kim,