Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Ultimate Choi Soon-sil-gate Explainer (Part 1)

It has been a few weeks since the incredible scandal involving Korea's president Park Geun-hye and her shaman-daughter confidant Choi Soon-sil has been revealed. Streets of Seoul and other major cities in Korea are now hosting nightly protests, some as large as a million people.

In two parts, here is everything you need to know, and even a few things that you don't, about this sordid scandal.

Some Super Basic Things You Should Know

Korea's executive is made up of the President, who is the head of state, and the Prime Minister, who is the head of government. Prime Minister is mostly a ceremonial position, nominated by the president and confirmed through the National Assembly. But as you will see below, the prime minister's role becomes very important in times of national emergency, as he may be asked to step into the role of the head of state if the president is incapacitated. The current prime minister is Hwang Gyo-an, the third prime minister of the Park administration. 

Korea's president lives in Cheongwadae, also known as the Blue House because of its blue tile roof. Blue House is itself a large bureaucracy, in which presidential aides work. The aides are organized into several departments, whose heads are called "chiefs" [수석]. This is a separate thing from the cabinet, which is made up of several ministries headed by ministers. Korea's presidents serve a single, five-year term. The next regularly scheduled presidential election is December 2017.

There are three major political parties in Korea: Saenuri Party, Democratic Party, and the People's Party. Park Geun-hye belongs to Saenuri, which is the conservative party. Democratic Party is the main progressive party, and the People's Party is ideologically in between Saenuri and Democratic Party. Within Saenuri, there are two major factions: those loyal to the current president, and those loyal to the former president Lee Myung-bak. Although in the same party, those two factions barely get along. That, however, is the better result than the relationship between Democratic Party and the People's Party. People's Party used to be a faction within the Democratic Party, but split off earlier this year.

Korea's legislature is called the National Assembly, which has 300 elected legislators. Currently, Saenuri has 129, Democratic has 121, and People's has 38 members. Justice Party, a minor party that is more leftist than the Democratic Party, has six seats. There are six independents. This means that the opposition--made up of Democratic and People's--has the clear majority in the legislature, as long as they are able to work together.

Media landscape in Korea--at least in the print and broadcast media--is solidly conservative. The top three circulation papers, Chosun, JoongAng and Dong-A, are all conservative, although with slightly different flavors. (Chosun and Dong-A tend to be more ideologically conservative, and JoongAng tends to be more economically conservative.) These three newspapers also own cable TV networks--TV Chosun, JTBC and Channel A, respectively--that further broadcast along their agenda. South Korea has three major network TV channels: KBS, MBC and SBS. Because two of them--KBS and MBC--are owned by the government, their news coverage tends to be limited to being the government's mouthpiece. For several years, SBS has been the lone bastion of investigative journalism on television. Progressives of Korea find their refuge in smaller newspapers--Kyunghyang and Hankyoreh--and rely much on the internet for news.

(More after the jump.)

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How to Process What is Going on

Because there are so many moving parts to this scandal, it is the best to understand the events in three broad categories: civic/media, investigations, and politics. Civic/media part is the activities by Korea's civil society, including the media revealing the extent of  corruption by Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil and the people's response to it. Investigations part is the official efforts to dig into the scandal and established an officially recognized set of facts. And politics part is how Park Geun-hye is handling her presidency, and what is likely to happen in the next presidency.

Some Names You Should Know

Park Geun-hye is South Korea's president. Choi Soon-sil is her confidant. Choi Soon-sil's father Choi Tae-min was a cult leader who gained favor with Park by claiming that he could speak with Park's dead mother. Choi Soon-sil was married to (and currently divorced from) Jeong Yoon-hoi, who was an aide to Park Geun-hye when she first entered politics as a National Assemblywoman. Choi and Jeong have a daughter Jeong Yoo-ra, whose suspicious admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University was the first loose thread that eventually exposed this entire scandal.

A key figure in the scandal is Woo Byeong-u, one of the Blue House chiefs, as Woo played the role of being Blue House's messenger to the cabinet and the National Assembly--which means Woo essentially played the role of delivering Choi Soon-sil's directives. Also significant are three Blue House aides who were nicknamed the "doorknob trio," as they were considered to be guarding the doorknob of presidential access. Their names are An Bong-geun, Jeong Ho-seong and Lee Jae-man. Other key figures include Jang Si-ho, Choi Soon-sil's niece, and Cha Eun-taek, a K-pop music video director who was instrumental in Choi's swindling of government budget.

Since this scandal is unfolding fairly close to the next presidential election, those with presidential ambitions are in the spotlight. Chief among them is Ban Ki-moon, the current UN Secretary-General who is expected to join the Saenuri Party to run for the president after his term is over. The front runner from Democratic Party is Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park Geun-hye in the 2012 presidential election. From the People's Party, Ahn Cheol-su is the front runner.

Civic/Media Front: What is Going on?

One of the most remarkable aspects of this scandal is how completely the conservative media turned against Park Geun-hye. Leading the charge in breaking the news have been the right-of-center cable news network JTBC, and the solidly right-wing Chosun Ilbo. Together, they have been unearthing new and devastating information every day, putting the Park administration further into the corner. The glee with which Chosun has been pursuing Park Geun-hye has caused some to speculate that Chosun is playing the role of the hitman for the pro-Lee Myung-bak faction within the Saenuri Party that suffered under the current administration.

Meanwhile, Park Geun-hye's approval number hit the lowest in the history of Korean democracy: 5 percent, according to RealMeter's survey in the second week of November, with an incredible 73.9 percent of people responding that Park should resign or be impeached. Support for Saenuri Party also crashed, clocking in at 19.2 percent in the November 14 survey by RealMeter. In contrast, support for Democratic Party was at 32 percent, the People's Party at 15.3 percent, and the Justice Party at 6.2 percent--creating a solid majority of opposition support.

Mass protest demanding Park Geun-hye's resignation, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd size is
estimated to be nearly a million. (source)

In other words, Park Geun-hye has no friend left in the country, and it is showing. Last weekend, Seoul saw the largest protest against the Park administration thus far, with an estimated crowd size of a million people. As it tends to be the case with contemporary Korea's democracy, the protests involve candlelight vigil, coordinated chanting and singing, but no violence.

How is This Scandal Being Investigated?

In an ordinary case of corruption, it is the Supreme Prosecutors' Office that investigates the case. But this is no ordinary case, because the president would be under investigation and many of Park Geun-hye's aides were former prosecutors. SPO did set up a special task force for investigating this scandal, and did arrest and interrogate a number of people involved, including Choi Soon-sil. SPO also conducted raids on a number of locations, including the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

But there have been (largely justified) charges that the SPO cannot be trusted to make an impartial investigation. At every major turn, the SPO has been late responding to the developments, giving time for those involved to destroy evidence and siphon out money before having to appear before the SPO. The SPO attempted to raid the Blue House, but was rebuffed by the Secret Service. (Take a pause here and think about how insane the previous sentence was.) This picture of Woo Byeong-u in the SPO offices did much to stoke the distrust.

Woo Byeong-u (left), appearing relaxed while standing the smiling prosecutors who are in charge of
interrogating him. (source)
You may not know what it is like being interrogated in the SPO, but you can probably guess that it does not involve standing around comfortably while smiling prosecutors bow their heads at you.

The three biggest issues right now on the investigation front are: (1) whether the President herself will appear for interrogation at the SPO; (2) whether the SPO will indict the President for any crime, and; (3) whether SPO will even be able to continue the investigation, as a special prosecutor may step in. The SPO summoned the President as a witness (note: not a suspect,) but the President refused to appear, demanding written interrogatories instead. The SPO does not need to personally interrogate the President to indict her, but the refusal to appear does not make the indictment any easier.

At any rate, the three major parties of the National Assembly agreed to appoint a special prosecutor. The two opposition parties--Democratic and People's--will propose two candidates, and the President is to choose one of them. The special prosecutor is given 120 days to complete his or her investigation. In addition, there will be a direct investigation and hearing by the National Assembly on the scandal as well. In other words, this scandal is guaranteed to drag on for at least another 4-5 months, unless something dramatic happens. What could happen? See below.

Politics:  What are the Paths Ahead?

Politically, the Choi Soon-sil gate has become a very difficult calculus for everyone involved, largely because Korea's next scheduled presidential election is in December 2017. That is around a year away from today, which is an awkward amount of time that is neither too long nor too short. If this scandal had happened in 2014, Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party may have more incentive to hang on, thinking that their fortune will turn around in the remainder of her term. If it had happened in June 2017, the opposition may be inclined to push more aggressively as a part of the presidential election campaign. But the awkward timing is making everyone move very cautiously.

There are four plausible scenarios ahead: (1) Park Geun-hye trudges on as a lame duck for the next year; (2) Park Geun-hye does not formally resign, but steps aside as a practical matter while allowing a new Prime Minister to form a "shared cabinet" for the next year; (3) Park Geun-hye resigns immediately, and; (4) Park is impeached.

Right now, Park Geun-hye and her closest cronies seem to prefer Option (1), for obvious reasons. In their minds, backing down means admission of guilt, which would come with jail time for everyone involved. That ship likely sailed, but they have no reason add their own shovel of dirt on their road to prison. They will lie low, delay and defend as much as they could, and hope the tide of public opinion turns around. (Hilariously, some of these cronies are heartened by the result of the U.S. presidential election, claiming that there are "shy Park supporters" uncaptured in the polls like "shy Trump voters.) After being holed up in the Blue House for several days, Park has been seen trying to handle her normal duties, such as appoint a Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the last few days. This is driving the non-Park faction of the Saenuri Party up the wall, as they would prefer Option (2), which is essentially a negotiated surrender.

Because delay is one of Park's primary goals, Park and her cronies actually do not mind getting impeached--which takes us to Option (4). In fact, some of Park's cronies have been practically daring the opposition to impeach her. This is because impeachment is practically difficult and time-consuming. For the sitting president to be impeached, over 50 percent of the National Assembly (i.e. 151 out of 300) must propose the resolution for impeachment, then at least 2/3 of the National Assembly (i.e. 200 out of 300) must approve the resolution. Further, impeachment alone does not remove the President; it merely puts the President on trial before the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court removes the President from her post if six out of the nine justices find that she violated the law or the constitution. While the Constitutional Court deliberates, the prime minister becomes the interim head of state.

This entire process will take at least eight months. The court case alone can take as much as six months, and the President has 60 days to prepare for the departure if the court decides against her. There is no guarantee that the National Assembly can actually pass the resolution for impeachment, as the combined opposition--made up of Democratic, People's, Justice Party members and all independents--is short by 29 Assembly members from 200. Even if the opposition can persuade 29 Saenuri members to join (difficult, but not impossible,) there is no guarantee that six justices of the Constitutional Court will actually find that Park violated the law, seeing that the majority of the Constitutional Court justices are considered to be conservative. Also, the idea of having Prime Minister Hwang Gyo-an--hardly an improvement over Park Geun-hye--as an interim head of state for as long as six month does not give any comfort to the opposition. Further, the impeachment process may provoke a backlash that causes the conservatives to rally around Park.

This is why the opposition leaders have been mostly cautious not to bring up impeachment, although the public has been overwhelmingly demanding impeachment in case Park Geun-hye does not resign. Fringe opposition figures with presidential ambitions, such as Mayor Lee Jae-myeong of Seongnam city, have been calling for impeachment. But the heavyweight opposition figures, such as Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo, have been moving slowly for the past several weeks. Moon Jae-in has been the more cautious one between the two, favoring Option (2), while Ahn Cheol-su went straight to Option (3) and demanded Park's resignation. If Park resigns, a new presidential election is to be held within 60 days.

Recall that the ruling Saenuri Party is split between pro-Park faction and pro-Lee Myung-bak faction. The pro-Lee faction has turned against the President, and has been negotiating for Option (2) with Moon Jae-in. Under this option, Park would hand over her authority has the head of state to a prime minister to be nominated by the opposition, and allow the prime minister to form a "shared cabinet" with representation from all major parties. That negotiation failed after around 10 days--the President unilaterally nominated a new prime minister, whom the National Assembly refused to ratify. (Park Geun-hye later withdrew the nomination.) This caused Moon Jae-in to join Ahn Cheol-su in calling for Park Geun-hye's resignation.

Politics:  What is This Stuff About Constitutional Amendment?

Amending the constitution has been one of the hobby horses of Korean politics. It is a bit like getting rid of the Electoral College in the United States--many people talk about it all the time, sometimes there may even be a bill introduced for it, but nothing actually gets done. In Korea, there has been much talk about perhaps switching into proportional representation system instead of the presidential system, or allowing the president to be re-elected rather than serving only a single term of five years. But in the 30-year history of modern Korean democracy, none of it even came close to happening.

In the early stages of the scandal, Park Geun-hye brought up the possibility of amending the constitution, presumably to distract the politicians from the unfolding scandal. Needless to say, the aimed-for distraction did not actually happen, although some opposition politicians also pipe up about amending the constitution from time to time. You can safely ignore this point.

Politics:  What is Happening with the Presidential Race?

All the Korean politicians are playing for the ultimate prize--winning the next presidential election. Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-su are clearly setting themselves up for the presidential run, and have been calibrating their behaviors accordingly.

There is no question that Park Geun-hye screwed over Saenuri Party's chances at a third consecutive president. Throughout her administration, Park has been engaged in a civil war within her party clashing with pro-Lee Myung-bak faction, which weakened the standing of that faction. But the pro-Park faction has no heir apparent either, as Park Geun-hye has been notoriously distrustful of grooming a Number 2 that may someday try to supplant her.

The most open secret in Korean politics has been that Saenuri Party has been attempting to bring in the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to run for the president under the conservative banner. But with this scandal, that plan went straight into the shredder. Ban, a notorious opportunist who truly earned his nickname "greasy eel," would be hardly inclined to jump onto the sinking ship that is Saenuri. However, with other Saenuri presidential hopefuls having been kneecapped by Park Geun-hye over the last several years, Ban is the only conservative who is polling in the double digits, at around 19 percent.

But the opposition is not in the clear, mostly because the support for the opposition is split into many. Moon Jae-in is leading the field with around 21 percent of the support, which is far from overwhelming. Ahn Cheol-su is clocking in around 12 percent, and Lee Jae-myeong is also cracking double digits based on his harsh attacks on the Park administration. Perhaps more importantly, many Koreans who are disgusted by the Park administration are still not willing to vote for a liberal candidate. It is very easy to imagine that, given the right candidate in the next few months, Korea's conservatives will rally behind him (and it is almost certainly a him.) One "Hail Mary" possibility: there is a small, but not insignificant, chance that Ahn Cheol-su would engage in a hostile takeover of Saenuri Party and run as the conservative candidate, after sensing that he will not be able to win in a three-way race.

What Are Some of the Allegations Against the President and Choi Soon-sil?

This list is so insanely huge that it deserves its own post, to come in the next few days. Stay tuned.

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  1. Nice context, but wondering what the actual allegations are...

  2. Thank you. You shed some light...I'm waiting for the next part

  3. Jang Shi Ho is a niece not a nephew. They are shedding light on the fact that she got into Yonsei ranked 52nd out of a class of 53 and how the selection of talented athletes included equestrian the YEAR she applied in 97.

    (I didn't read the whole thing yet but that struck out at me.)

    1. Don't you mean that Jeong Yoo-ra is the niece (as TK says)? Jang Shi Ho hasn't gotten a lot of English language press, but Jeong Yoo-ra has. She's the one with the questionable Ewha University acceptance.

    2. No, that was my mistake. Fixed now.

  4. Love your explications of these events. I'm hoping that you will shed some light on the issues involving the Mir and K-Sports foundations. It would also be interesting to hear better information about the possible link to the "Creative Korean" campaign. Thanks!

  5. Great article, thank you for explaining all in such wonderful detail :)

  6. I still don't get what the president has specifically done.

  7. This scandal is absolutely nothing but a waste of space.

  8. This is wonderful, thank you for your coverage TK. Hopefully you can cover the speech Park just gave today about being willing to resign but actually wanting to slow down impeachment proceedings(?!)

  9. Thank you soooo much for providing this super detailed information on the entire case. This is really really interesting and it's hard to gather this much information written in such a clear manner. Can't wait to see part 2 especially with the new reveals regarding YG entertainment which has many kpop fans jumping around! Thank you once again!!

  10. Really great explainer. Can't wait for part two

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. It's so interesting article.. I'm Malaysian and don't really got what exactly happened at Korea but thank to this article I understand a little bit about it now.

  13. If you don't mind, I will be both your entries into this. Just don't want it mysteriously disappearing from the interwebs.


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