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Park Geun-hye

Unleash the memes: how South Koreans are mocking president’s scandal with humour

In less than a week, President Park Geun-hye’s public image has spiralled while her friend Choi Soon-sil became notorious, thanks to the prowess of a highly wired internet-savvy society

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 11:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 5:33pm

Since last week, South Korean president Park Geun-hye has become embroiled in one of the biggest scandals in modern Korean history.

Park, the daughter of former president and dictator Park Chun-hee, has been under fire for alleged corruption and for her association with the Church of Eternal Life, a pseudo-Christian religious sect, founded by Park’s late spiritual confidant Choi Tae-min. Park’s five-year term ends in early 2018.

Much of Park’s personal life was exposed through the discovery of files found on a tablet that belonged to her friend and purported spiritual advisor Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the founder of Park’s alleged religion. Last weekend, over 12,000 protesters marched through City Hall and Gwanghamun Square, one of Seoul’s metropolitan centres demanding Park’s impeachment, in one of the largest protests in the past decade.

The thing is, when you’re living in Korea, you have to have a sense of what I call ‘gallow’s humour’
Academic Michael Hurt

This week, however, anger and incredulity have subsided, giving way to another unexpected form of expression: humour. Amid the confusion and flurry of rumours, Koreans have begun upon to reflect upon the absurdity of a scandal they now call “Choi Soon-sil-gate”.

This week, countless internet memes with photoshopped depictions of Park and Choi have flooded Korean websites and social media services, popping up on Naver (the largest Korean search portal), Twitter, Facebook, SMS and Kakaotalk (a popular Korean messaging app).

In one entitled “Choi Soon-sil Wears Prada” a play on the film The Devil Wears Prada a submissive-looking Park dotes over Choi while carrying a handful of shopping bags and a carton of lattes in tow.

Others memes show Choi as “Soon-derella”, running down palace steps, with a black Prada shoe on the ground. The image pokes fun at a recent incident where Choi’s designer Prada sneaker fell off, while attempting to evade the crowds outside a Seoul prosecutor’s office on Monday.

Things may be bad, but Koreans can still see the humour, said Michael Hurt, an academic who has taught courses on pop culture and visual sociology at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“The thing is, when you’re living in Korea, you have to have a sense of what I call ‘gallow’s humour’. [Living under constant threat of North Korean attacks,] it’s something you can’t live without here.”

“Koreans are used to their political scandals, but what people are most surprised by is the complete irrationality of [this scandal]. I think young people [especially] are completely bewildered by this.”

“Korea is a place where people still consult fortune tellers and people with [purported] magical powers before they make big personal decisions in life… Many say that they don’t believe in that, but then a lot of them go there and make their decisions [based off of fortune telling].”

A lot of younger generations don’t understand this, added Hurt.

“Bad president,” was one of the top trending words on Twitter, while the hashtag “pure heart” was popular among those who felt Park’s recent speech, during which she apologised for the scandal and spoke about her “pure heart” and “intentions”, was insincere.

“The Story of Princess Jeon” is another viral topic. The story, written by an anonymous author, presents a satirised historical fiction account of Park as an ancient Korean princess “with the intelligence of a chicken,” and her relationship with her maid Choi, who edits all of the princess’ unintelligible speeches. President Park, accused of allowing Choi to edit her speeches, has also been criticised by the public for giving obtuse, rambling talks in the past.

Also popular through Instagram and other social media, are photos of a handful of Koreans who chose to dress up as Choi for Halloween. In a nation where the holiday is not usually celebrated, images of costumed Koreans wearing Choi’s now-signature white dress shirt with sunglasses, holding smartphones and designer handbags were widely circulated among Koreans. The costume is based off of one of the first-known images of Choi that emerged earlier last week.

In less than a week, Park’s public image has undergone immense ridicule and irreversible damage, while Choi has become one of the most notorious people in Korean history thanks largely to the prowess of a highly wired internet-savvy society.

There’s a huge amount of schadenfreude in this situation, said Michael Hurt.

Watch: clip of Korean drama with infamous ‘kimchi slap’ and the fun that followed

“It’s one of the things that drives these memes [and images]. [The situation with Park and Choi is] too perfect. It’s almost like the kimchi slap. The kimchi slap was meme-able,” he said, of a surreally ridiculous video clip of a Korean drama that went viral when a character was physically slapped with a piece of kimchi.

But more importantly, through creating and propagating such memes, younger generations have begun to take note and analyse what is going on.

“Online Koreans have always been pretty active,” said Hurt. “But I think that it’s a different kind of moment right now because I think there’s a social space for critical thinking [and] critical engagement for what’s going on.”

An earlier version of this story said Park was in the fourth and final year of her single term presidency. Her five-year term ends in early 2018.