South Korean leader must come clean on scandal involving friend
President Park Geun-hye should ensure there is an independent inquiry into alleged influence-peddling by her close aide
South Korea needs strong leadership to boost an anaemic economy and navigate the nuclear and missile threats from North Korea and rocky relations with China and Japan. But President Park Geun-hye provides little of that, her authority having been weakened by the scandal involving the influence wielded on the government by a close friend. An apology and reshuffle of officials has not assuaged protesters calling for her impeachment or resignation. As necessary as a thorough investigation may be, it will more than likely only increase her lame-duck status in her final year in office.
Park’s admissions and what has been revealed by the media are already damning. Her long-time friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a religious cult leader, was given access to classified information, screened the president’s speeches and is suspected of having a prominent say in national and foreign policy, despite not being a government employee or adviser. Choi is alleged to have personally profited from the relationship and influenced the funding of two non-profit organisations. Investigations into whether she and political aides broke the law are under way.
North Korea is bound to take advantage of Park’s difficulties to stir greater trouble. Regional instability will be worsened by the lack of a president able to adequately deal with fractured ties with neighbours. The South was already reeling from the fallout of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 crisis and collapse of the shipping line Hanjin, the world’s seventh-largest container carrier. A political crisis is not what the nation needs in such trying times.
But there is no guarantee that a solution lies in Park’s premature removal from office. Influence-peddling is endemic in South Korea and connections are essential to getting ahead in business and life. Revelations of privileges being given at the pinnacle of politics erodes a recent crackdown on gift-giving to officials aimed at ending top-level graft. Each of the president’s four predecessors since the introduction of democratic elections in 1988 was linked to wrongdoing; Roh Tae-woo was jailed for accepting bribes, the sons of Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were imprisoned for graft and Roh Moo-hyun killed himself as allegations of law-breaking mounted.
The constitution exempts a sitting president from criminal charges for offences other than insurrection or treason. But that should not prevent the country’s first woman leader from cooperating with investigators or ensuring that an independent inquiry is held. That can be the foundation for her successor to properly tackle the scourge of corruption, graft and privilege.