An alleged shaman captured the soul of Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, and has orchestrated all her decisions for the past 40 years. Park’s support rate fell to 5 percent in November from 34 percent in October.
South Korea has not been a democracy for the last four years; it has been a medieval shaman state, worse than the North’s guerrilla feudal state in a sense that South Korea’s hard-won democracy regressed significantly in just four years. It even reminds us of its northern neighbor. The focus on hereditary leadership, the unfit leader, party leaders who support the unqualified leader for their own benefit and survival, religious cults, the role of Christianity, and the suffering people underneath - all these draw some parallel comparison between the two Koreas.
I was in Seoul for the past few days, witnessing angry citizens calling for Park’s resignation, the conservative media’s bashing of Park and the witch-hunting of Choi, the split in Park’s Saenuri Party, pro-Park supporters victimizing her, the anti-Park’s distancing themselves from her, and the opposition parties’ fragmented leadership in the middle of this national crisis.
Park should not have been president in the first place. She was mentally and intellectually unfit to be a president. There are, however, real forces behind her rise and fall, the Seanuri Party, the conservative media and the prosecution.
The first and biggest force behind the Choi scandal is the anti-Park faction within the ruling conservative Saenuri Party. It, together with the mainstream conservative media, pretended they had no idea about Choi’s exclusive power and acted as if Choi was the only source of today’s problems. All five Seanuri Party potential presidential candidates - Kim Moo-sung, Nam Kyung-pil, Oh Se-hoon, Won Hee-ryong, and Kim Moon-soo - held a press conference Nov. 1 to denounce Park and the pro-Park leadership. Two dozen members of the anti-Park faction called for her to leave her own party and the resignation of the current party leadership. Their aim was to win the next election by ditching Park and scape-goating Choi.
The second force is the conservative media that has contributed significantly to this most shameful event in Korean history. They manipulated millions of the uneducated older generation in rural areas who sympathized with Park’s personal history to get her elected in the first place, together with the National Intelligence Service that spread rumors about Park’s rival, Moon Jae-in. Many of Park’s supporters were elderly evangelical Christians with strong Korean shamanistic characteristics.
The media is covering allegations about Choi’s intervention in almost all national and international affairs, including sports, cultural events, the closing down of the Gaesong Industrial Park, the PyongChang Winter Olympics, THAAD and other weapons agreements, and the appointment of ministers and other high-ranking Cheong Wa Dae officials. Park’s mysterious seven-hour disappearance immediately after the Sewol sinking was also reported to be related to Choi.
What is noticeable particularly in the conservative media is gender stereotypical reporting. Choi’s wealth and tastes in luxury shoes and handbags, use of raw language and tough personality and her relation with a male “host” were part of the criticism against Choi. One conservative commentator said Saenuri party politicians were shocked to discover the extent of Choi’s power in political and diplomatic matters, as most who knew about Choi’s close relations with Park thought she was merely helping Park with her diet, clothes or handbags, which was okay by them. Choi’s husband, Chung Yoon-hoi, was known to be the right hand of the President. However, Choi’s involvement in political affairs, a lady friend who was only supposed to aid Park in her physical appearance, seem to particularly upset elderly conservative men who didn’t have direct access to the President.
This is not to sympathize with Choi or Park, but there is certainly a gender aspect to this scandal because they were women. The conservative media found a scapegoat and a witch to help revive the Seanuri Party to win the next election. They’re accomplices in this crime. The media has already started depicting the anti-Park faction as the legitimate conservatives who should win the next presidential election. They’re fully aware of the current state of the totally fragmented opposition leadership.
We don’t know to what extent Choi’s power went to. This depends on the results of the prosecution’s investigation which is ongoing. However, there is no public trust in the prosecution which has been serving the powerful. All eyes are on the prosecution’s investigation, but what we really need to watch and understand is the motivation and the moves behind the Saenuri Party’s anti-Park faction who helped make the haunted Park a president in the first place and now boast of their innocence to escape this ugly political survival game. They’re the real force behind the recent Choi scandal.
Song Ji-young is the director of the Migration and Border Policy Project at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and is a global ethics fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York.