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John Burton: 'Choigate' threatens to leave Seoul politically paralyzed

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Protesters call for South Korean President Park Geun-hye's resignation at a rally in Seoul on Nov. 5.   © Reuters

Salacious details surrounding the scandal involving South Korean President Park Geun-hye have ignited public outrage over what would normally be seen, by local standards, as a routine case of political influence-peddling and illicit use of slush funds.

Almost all of South Korea's previous presidents or their families have faced similar charges. What distinguishes the current scandal, dubbed "Choigate," are allegations that Park's confidante, Choi Soon-sil, was the leader of a shamanistic-Christian cult founded by her late father and that she intervened in state affairs by arranging government posts for cronies and meddled in policy on North Korea. Choi and her father appeared to have assumed the role of spiritual advisors to an emotionally vulnerable Park in the 1970s after first her mother and then her father, President Park Chung-hee, were assassinated.

The Rasputin-esque role played by Choi, as portrayed by local media, has further incensed the public about her role as Park's confidante. It has raised questions of accountability in a nation that prides itself on the democratic institutions it fought so hard to establish against the opposition of previous military governments, including that of Park's father. Choi used her position as an unofficial adviser to raise millions of dollars from some of the country's leading conglomerates, according to prosecutors. Some of the money was allegedly used to support her daughter's hopes of competing in the dressage competition in the 2020 Olympics, a sport that symbolizes elitism when a broad sector of the South Korean public is struggling to meet household expenses.

What adds insult to injury in the eyes of many education-obsessed South Koreans is that Choi wielded such influence despite her lack of a university education, although her daughter reportedly gained admission to Seoul's prestigious Ewha Womans University and received privileged treatment thanks to Choi's presidential connections. Park is widely seen as having been played the fool by Choi, prompting widespread anger at the president for "embarrassing" the country.

POOR PERFORMANCE Park's popularity had already plummeted before the scandal due to her lackluster leadership and failure to deal with the country's growing economic and social problems. Income inequality has been widening in South Korea as economic growth has slowed, leaving the important shipbuilding, shipping and steel sectors reeling amid competition from China and weak global demand, and the nation's well-educated youth struggling to find good jobs. The president has done little to curb the dominance of big business groups, which were apparently eager to make "donations" to two Choi-related foundations to protect their position. In terms of foreign policy, Park has watched helplessly as North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons program, while a diplomatic outreach to China has failed to persuade Beijing to end its support of Pyongyang.

Adding to her problems is Park's image as a headstrong and isolated figure who is unable to communicate effectively with the public. This has increased public willingness to believe stories that Choi was the secret power in the presidential Blue House. Although Park was regarded as a skillful political tactician, her autocratic tendencies were seen as one reason for the ruling party's setback in April parliamentary elections.

Choigate has robbed Park of any remaining credibility and effectiveness. Her approval ratings since the scandal broke in local media have fallen to 5%. From here, the president could resign or be impeached, although most analysts believe that is unlikely unless street demonstrations gain momentum -- at least 100,000 people turned out in central Seoul on Nov. 5 to demand her resignation. The opposition parties and Park's rivals within the ruling party appear to prefer her to serve out her term, which ends in early 2018, because her sudden departure would trigger a presidential election within 60 days and neither side seems ready to mount a successful campaign.

Instead, South Korea seems condemned to more than a year of political drift, which would further delay efforts to tackle economic and foreign policy challenges as politicians focus on the next election.

Ironically, the biggest legacy that Park may leave is her recent proposal to replace the mandatory single five-year presidential term with two four-year terms. If that proposal had been in place, Park would now be on her way to a drubbing at the polls in the coming weeks and South Korea would be looking forward to a new political chapter.

John Burton is a Seoul-based writer and a former Financial Times correspondent.

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