South Korean politics is like the HBO show Game of Thrones, full of intrigue and dramatic twists. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is the third in the last four years of President Park Geun-hye’s reign. Her two predecessors also appointed three and four PMs each. The president herself in not immune and is currently facing impeachment. In fact, all Korean presidents have had troubled innings, more so since the tentative advent of democracy in December 1987. President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08) was impeached by the National Assembly (although the decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court). He committed suicide in 2009. Korea’s strongman President Park Chung-hee (father of the current president) was assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.
Korea’s rags-to-riches journey has a fairy tale ring about it. An impoverished nation, devoured by the 1950-53 Korean war, became an Asian tiger in four decades, thanks mostly to the visionary, even if dictatorial, rule (1961-79) of President Park Chung-hee. With prosperity came the yearning for civil liberties and democracy. Korean people fought pitched battles with security forces and shed blood to shake-off totalitarian rule in the eighties. The 1988 Olympics, hosted by Seoul, spurred the process.
However, the strength of Korea’s young democracy is still being calibrated. On the one hand, it is challenged by Korea’s paternalistic orientation and the family-led mammoths (Chaebols) like Samsung and Hyundai that tightly control the economy. These Chaebols and their princelings enjoy incestuous ties with the politicians and bureaucrats, cementing their position at the top of the pyramid. On the other hand, the highly-educated and passionate electorate remains ever vigilant, taking to the streets whenever it perceives serious transgressions by the power-elite.
That is the background in which the current political turmoil needs to be viewed. The victory of Park Geun-hye was a watershed event not only in Korea but also East Asian politics, giving the region its first ever lady head of state. She had impressive credentials. A polyglot, she served as the first lady, at the tender age of 22, when her mother fell to an assassin’s bullet in 1974. She immersed herself in the world of literature for close to two decades, after being shunned by power brokers upon her father’s demise. She never married and is alienated from her siblings.
Essentially a loner, she confided in very few like Choi Soon-sil (daughter of Korea’s Rasputin Choi Tae-min), who became one of her closest unofficial advisers at the Blue House (Korea’s version of White House). And she is now paying the price for reposing her trust blindly.
The populace, incensed by the influence-peddling by her confidante, is baying for her political scalp. A large number of parliamentarians from her own Saenuri party, broke ranks to join the opposition in adopting a motion in the National Assembly on December 9 to impeach her. Her approval rating has slumped from over 60% in mid-2013 to below 5% now. Her fate now rests in the hands of the Constitutional Court.
A decisive administrator, though somewhat aloof and even imperial, she could never settle down in her job. First came the crisis triggered by North Korean nuclear test in February 2013, when Pyongyang threatened to drown Seoul in a “sea of fire”. Next came the Sewol ferry tragedy in April 2014, which consumed over 300 young Korean lives, when she and her administration were caught napping. Park was dealt a drubbing in general elections in April with her party losing its majority in the National Assembly.
She has been regularly embarrassed by her choice of Cabinet colleagues and advisers, including prime ministerial appointees, most of who are said to be selected more for loyalty than merit. One of the nominees withdrew in haste even before the ratification process was completed by the National Assembly. A couple were sacked. And what is more, not only the dismissal of the present incumbent on November 2 got thwarted due to the ongoing turmoil, as luck would have it, he is now the acting president, while her powers remain suspended.
Park has nothing much to show for her rule. Her overtures to China (she speaks Mandarin), Korea’s biggest economic partner, mostly in the expectation of blunting Beijing’s patronage of Pyongyang, has not produced the desired results. North Korea continues to flout international sanctions and expand its WMD arsenal. A worried Seoul finally consented to Washington’s proposal to deploy the antimissile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which has infuriated China. Relations with Japan remain tepid. The imminent advent of the Donald Trump era can only be adding to her and East Asian discomfiture.
Koreans are one of the most free-spirited people and would go to any lengths to protect their hard-won democracy. But as of now their efforts have only been rewarded by an ever-revolving political door.
Vishnu Prakash is former high commissioner to Canada. He has served in South Korea and China, and was official spokesperson of MEA.
The views expressed are personal