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The Korean Public Saved Korean Democracy from their own Corrupt Political Class

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This is the English-language version of an article I published this week with Newsweek Japan on ‘Choi-gate.’

This pre-dates the impeachment vote of yesterday, but the basic point still holds: the Korean public just gave the world a lesson in what democracy looks like. In the 8+ years I have lived here, this is its finest hour. Koreans should be proud of themselves for peaceful protests in the millions on behalf of clean and transparent government. It’s all the more impressive given that the US is about to install an authoritarian game-show host as president. Who ever thought the Koreans would teach the Americans what democracy is all about?

Yesterday, I told Bloomberg that corruption is now, very obviously, the most important domestic politics issue in Korea. Yes, it is still trumped by North Korea, but it is now painfully, painfully obvious that Korea needs much cleaner government. In fact, corruption is so bad, I am surprised that there is no Donald Trump figure entering Korean politics. Yet again, the Koreans prove themselves more democratically mature than Americans.

So yes, Korea’s political class is a corrupt, self-serving mess, but its public is not and that is vastly more important. For all their flim-flam about Dokdo, the curative powers of kimchi, the made-up anthropology of a ‘glorious 5000-year history,’ and all the rest, when it came to the big thing – clean, robust democracy – they got it right in a big way. Props to the Koreans.

The essay follows the jump.



Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of South Korean democratization. Yet that democracy is now facing its greatest constitutional crisis. President Park Geun Hye is involved in a sprawling, frequently bizarre influence-peddling scandal involving long-time confidante and obvious swindler Choi Soon Sil. Park will almost certainly be driver from office because of it. The investigation has revealed disturbing allegations of corruption and nepotism at the same time that the South Korean parliament, the National Assembly, has passed an extremely strict anti-graft law in yet another effort to beat back seemingly entrenched corruption. Korean politicians and public figures have described themselves embarrassed at the seemingly endless parade of corruption scandals and Park’s epic miscalculation in permitting Choi such influence in her administration. The North Koreans, predictably, are gloating; ‘Choi-gate’ apparently proves the superiority of their ‘system.’

The South Korean Public Embraces Democracy

But there is a clear upside to this story, one that suggests that Korean democracy is deeply rooted and maturing despite the public circus of the last month. The Korean public has responded with a massive outpouring of peaceful resistance to the shenanigans of its leaders. Corruption may stalk the Korean political establishment, even the president, but the public has made very clear it will not accept that. In the weeks since the Choi scandal broke, millions of Koreans have protested peacefully. On November 26, estimates suggest two million people demonstrated, a staggering 4% of the entire national population. Even overseas Koreans protested in Europe and the United States.

Numbers of that scale are astonishing in modern democracies. 4% of the Japanese population would be 5 million people on the streets; 4% of the United States would be 13 million people. Japan and the US have never seen demonstrations of that size. That suggests a strong, genuine commitment to Korean democracy and clean government, a popular desire to participate that is often lost in the elitism that normally characterizes Korean politics.

These protests have happened five weeks in a row, another astonishing feat. Mobilizing millions of people for more than a month requires a deep well of public support for democracy. Further, the protests have been entirely peaceful. There have been no reports of assaults, robberies, and so on. The kind of social anarchy we saw during Arab Spring protests of similar scale did not occur. The protestors even cleaned up their trash, signaling a commitment to their society even as they rejected its leadership.

All this is hugely inspiring, even as the constitutional drama reveals the weakness of the Korean political class and the need for reform of South Korea’s institutions. In the eight years I have lived in South Korea, this is its finest hour. South Korea often enmeshes itself in controversies western observers find bizarre: the debate over THAAD missile defense here is dominated by (Chinese) misinformation; accusations about nascent Japanese ‘re-militarization’ are unhinged; the Korean media is deeply vested in a wildly exaggerated nationalist story of Korean pop-culture ‘conquering the world.’ But when things really mattered, the Korean public came through, demonstrating a deep commitment to core modern democratic values – peaceful protest, civic participation, and clean government. If there was ever a moment to see the large difference between North and South Korea in stark relief, this was it. Indeed at time, when the West has voted for Brexit and Donald Trump, and the National Front is running strongly in France, South Korea is illustrating to the world how an engaged, responsible democratic public behaves. Who ever would have imagined the South Koreans would be teaching the Americans about democracy?

The Public Rejects Park

The next steps in the crisis are likely either Park’s resignation or an impeachment vote. As the scandal has unfolded over the last two months, Park has stood her ground. She has insisted that she committed no crime. She conceded that she gave too much space and consideration to her friend but insists that this was not illegal. The Korean public has, by a large margin, rejected this interpretation. Park’s approval rating has crashed to an historic low of 4%. I am unaware of any chief executive in a modern democracy who returned such low numbers. Not even Richard Nixon in the depths of Watergate was so unpopular. For this reason, most observers think she will be forced out one way or another.

Park cuts a somewhat tragicomic figure here. Unlike most politicians felled by scandals of politics, money, sex, war, and so on, Park has bizarrely discredited herself on behalf of an obvious con artist who exploited her for decades. It may indeed be true that she technically committed no crime, but the sheer extent and weirdness of the scandal has been damning. Choi seems to have had influence over a vast expanse of presidential decisions, from the mundane, such as the presidential wardrobe, to the serious, such as the president’s speeches and staffing choices. Choi may have even impacted Park’s tougher line on North Korea, in that Choi apparently predicted North Korea’s imminent collapse and edited some of Park’s speeches on the subject.

And the scamming and nepotism have been both egregious and astonishingly petty. Despite all the wealth accrued through her graft, Choi seems to have embezzled much of the funding for the president’s wardrobe while clothing Park in cheap outfits (which the Korean fashion press picked up on years ago). Choi exploited her presidential connections to shake down large corporations for ‘donations.’ She used those connections to bully a university into accepting her daughter as a student and even alter her daughters’ scoring in an equestrian competition. Choi’s personal trainer (!) even got in on the act, getting appointed a staffer in the Blue House, the Korean executive residence.

Park may indeed be correct that she herself violated no law, but the whole thing is so preposterous and bizarre that she has been thoroughly discredited and her presidency all but ended even if she somehow retains the office itself. The public has concluded that Park was conned by an obvious grifter and charlatan, and there is widespread amazement that Park, who otherwise seemed like a canny, intelligent politician, was taken in by such an obvious fraud. That Choi has no obvious qualifications for the wide influence she wielded makes Park look all the more like an easy mark in a con scheme. Choi is not a lawyer, economist, policy expert, and so on. Her ‘qualification’ seems to be that her shamanistic cult-leader father convinced Park that he could communicate with Park’s deceased mother (yes, really). This would be laughable, were it not so politically consequential.

What if Park Stays in Office?

The upshot is that even if Park is technically innocent, the public has concluded that she has been a shadow president while Choi was the real power behind the throne. In the protests, the most damning image has been of Choi looming above Park, pulling strings attached to Park’s limbs as if she were a puppet.

Park may constitutionally survive. At the time of this writing, an impeachment vote looks likely to occur on December 9. The opposition bloc needs twenty-eight government party members to vote for impeachment to overcome the required two-thirds impeachment threshold (200 out of 300 members of the National Assembly). Park floated a bizarre, not-quite resignation proposal on November 29 in which she suggested that she would accept whatever fate the National Assembly deemed fit for her presidency, including a shortening of her term. This does not follow the constitutional process, in which impeachment or resignation leads to an acting president followed by a new election within sixty days. It is widely suspected that her curious non-resignation offer was a last ditch attempt to muddy the waters. It might convince some of her party’s wavering parliamentarians to vote against impeachment because she would imminent resign. This is dangerous territory: constitutional ‘reform’ hastily tossed about by a president desperate to slip out of impeachment.

Even if the National Assembly votes to remove her, South Korea’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, must also vote in a two-thirds majority (six out nine justices) to remove her. Two of those justices’ terms end in the next six months, which would almost certainly provoke a sharp fight over the appointment of pro- or anti-Park judges. The Court also might not wish to proceed until the final report of the Choi-gate special prosecutor is completed, which may take months. Yet another layer of confusion is that the government party’s position is now that Park should remain in office until April, so that it can find a viable candidate to run in the snap election which would follow her resignation.



All of this political confusion raises the importance of constitutional reform. The Korean public has spoken clearly. Indeed, they have carried the mantle of democracy in the last few months as the formal system has devolved into chaos. The Korean political class has flailed, while millions of Koreans have peacefully demonstrated for clean government and transparency. It is time the Republic of Korea had institutions to match its electorate’s democratic intensity.

The most obvious reform needed is major crackdown on corruption. This has become the bane of Korean politics. When family and friends ‘cash out’ their connections, as happens far too often here, Korea looks like a banana republic. A great irony of Park’s presidency is that she explicitly claimed it would cleaner than usual because she was unmarried and alienated from her family. Instead, this seems to have made her so lonely that a quack was able to befriend her.

The new anti-graft law should help, but the real problem is the Korean developmentalist state. So long as the Korean government insists on ‘guiding’ the economy, state officials and businessmen will regularly interact regarding money. This obviously opens huge, regular opportunities for graft. In Choi’s case, if Korea’s largest companies were not so dependent on presidential goodwill, Choi would never have been able to blackmail them with her friendship with Park.

The other big reform, which would make this crisis much simpler to resolve, is the creation of a vice president. South Korea is a hybrid, ‘semi-presidential’ system. That is, it has both a president and prime minister. Constitutionally, the PM becomes the acting president should the president die or otherwise exit the office. There is then to be a new election within sixty days for a new president for a full five-year term. As the Choi crisis is demonstrating, this is an unnecessarily complex transfer of power process.

The PM is a weak, poorly defined office in Korea. He often acts as a ‘fall guy’ for the president when scandal hits, and he does not have the clear mandate to take over the presidency a vice-president has. That the PM can be fired easily by the president makes the office even more unstable. The current PM was actually fired by Park but retained as acting PM, because the president and parliament could not agree on a successor. The 60-day snap election of a full term presidency raises the stakes even more. South Korea’s conservatives are trying now to forestall Park’s resignation so that they do not lose the presidency for the next five years. It would far easier to simply impeach Park if there a waiting vice-president who would only finish her term. There would be no incentive to fight for an ideal timing of her resignation. The existence of meaningful vice presidential office made Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate much easier. His vice president assumed the office; the country moved on; and the next election was held normally on schedule.

Park Should Probably Resign

Park’s desire to hang on is understandable. Her resignation will destroy her reputation in Korean history. Given that her father’s presidency was in fact in a dictatorship, her fall from grace will impact the family legacy too. More immediately, Park may face criminal charges after resignation and go to prison. As president, she is immune. Perhaps she imagines that if she can just hang on a few more months, the cold weather will drive the protestors from the streets, and then the upcoming election will convince everyone to just let her ride out the rest of her term.

This is risky. She is discredited. She is widely understood now as a naif controlled by a con artist. The protests to date have been peaceful, but the potential for unrest is obvious. If she survives impeachment by some gimmicky parliamentary maneuver or the replacement of high justices, public opinion will worsen. The protests could expand, and the government would be paralyzed. Were that to occur for months on end, it would be unprecedented for a modern democracy. Park’s term formally ends in late February 2018. That opens the possibility of 15 months of protest and paralysis if she fights to the end. The protests so far have been a remarkable display of civic responsibility, but the longer they grind on, the more they will attract troublemakers and radicals. Disorder over the course of a 15-month political stalemate is an obvious possibility. Korea has not seen protests of this scope since the street contests of democratization. Defying the will of 96% of the population, with millions on the street for months on end, is a frightening prospect.


Filed under: Corruption, Domestic Politics, Korea (South), Media, Newsweek, Park Geun Hye, Scandal

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University


Top 5 Survival Items For Expats & Exchange Students in Korea

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Living by yourself can be fun and exciting since you get to be independent and free from your nagging parents! However, it also comes with a lot of responsibility.

Last time we posted about must-have beauty products from Daiso, which is a store selling everything from beauty products to household items to school supplies all ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 KRW. Today’s post is about 5 survival items from there that we recommend for all you expats and exchange students staying in Korea for the long run to keep at home!

1. Roll Cleaner

Use these simple but innovative roll cleaners to clean hair and dust off your floor or remove lint from your clothes. You can also purchase refills in bundles.
roll cleaner.jpgIt’s a quick and simple way to clean your home and doesn’t take up any space to store either!

2. Reusable Recycling Bins

Korea is pretty strict with recycling policies and there are certain rules you should follow if you want to avoid having any angry garbage men or your apartment’s maintenance man chasing after you! Reusable Reclying Bins.jpgThese reusable recycling bins make sorting your trash easy so you don’t have to be digging through everything and sorting it at the dumpster!

3. All-purpose Tweezers

If you’re a lazy couch potato, this product is ideal for you. Now you can reach for the TV remote, switch off the lights, pick up the can that missed the bin – all thanks to these all-purpose tweezers!

4. Hair Stopper Sheets

Those of you with long hair may especially be able to relate to this. No one likes cleaning clogged hair out of a drain as it’s messy and gross. Well, you’ll no longer have that problem with these hair stopper sheets!

They come in both rectangular and circular shapes and all you have to do is peel and stick it onto your drain, then throw it out once there’s a significant amount of hair caught on it! Simple!

5. Mini Rectangular Frypan

Kitchens in one-room apartments or dorms are usually quite small and you usually don’t need to have huge cookware and tools when you’re only making food for yourself. Lo and behold, the mini rectangular fry pan for one! mini rectangular frypan.jpgThis frypan is super cute and convenient to store and the perfect size for making meals for yourself!

Don’t forget to stop by, Korea’s #1 Travel Shop for more fun and informative posts like this one!


Top 5 Survival Items For Expats & Exchange Students in Korea
a service for travelers to easily share and discover the latest hip & hot travel spots from all over the world. 
We are currently focusing on Korea as our destination and plan to expand to other countries gradually. 

The History of Korea - Learn Korean History in Under 12 Minutes

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Korea has an amazing history. It really does, but most people don't learn much about it (besides learning about the Korean War in high school... and "Gangnam Style").

Learn about Korea's history from its first origins, its first kingdoms, and its history from the past up to the present day. Because this video is under 12 minutes long, and is meant to be a summary, some parts, people, and details have been intentionally left out. Please let me know if there are any parts you'd like to learn more about, and perhaps I can make another video in the future.

Check out the video here~!

The post The History of Korea - Learn Korean History in Under 12 Minutes appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.

 Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean





Pyeongchang Trout Festival (Dec 23~Jan 30)

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Looking for something fun to do this winter in South Korea? Well, this winter festival is definitely something that you don’t want to miss out on!

The 10th annual Pyeongchang Trout Festival is a famous winter festival in South Korea that takes place in the town of Jinbu-myeon in the Pyeongchang-gun district, which is about 2.5 hours away from Seoul. Visitors can enjoy ice fishing as well as many other fun winter activities! pyeongchang-trout-festival-2Pyeongchang is an alpine county that is a haven for winter sports as it receives an abundance of snowfall every year. Here, you can enjoy ice fishing as well as many other fun winter activities like sledding, bobsleigh riding, ice skating and more! pyeongchang-trout-festival-3The main attraction at the festival is ice fishing, where you can attempt to catch fresh trout from a hole drilled into the ice. You can choose between open-ice fishing (pictured above) or tent fishing (these tend to sell out very quickly).

A fishing rod can be purchased which differs in price depending on the type of artificial bait attached on the line.

Be prepared to sit idly by the hole as you bob your rod up and down, waiting for a trout to bite onto the bait. Bring your own foldable chair or purchase one on-site for comfort!

*Ice fishing is only available depending on the ice conditions. If it is not cold enough, it may not be available as the ice will be too thin, causing it to break easily. pyeongchang-trout-festival-6If you’re feeling super brave, why not try your hand at fishing for trout with your bare hands? Brrrr… aren’t you shivering just thinking about it? You, along with many other brave souls, will enter a large pool full of trout in just a t-shirt and shorts and attempt to catch grab as many of them with your bare hands.

The best part? You get to feast on what you’ve caught afterward! Choose to enjoy your fish processed raw as sashimi or get it grilled the traditional way over firewood by chefs on standby. Don’t worry if you don’t catch any fish as you can buy them!

If you’re looking for something else to enjoy besides ice fishing, look no further as there’s plenty of recreational activities to do! Choose from snow tubing, ice skating, snow rafting, ice cycling, sledding, spinning rail cars or an ATV (four-wheel motorcycle)! pyeongchang-trout-festival-1There are even rides like bumper cars and disco pang pang, which is a circular ride that spins around and bounces up and down, accompanied by entertaining comments from the announcer controlling it. pyeongchang-trout-festival-5Ice sculptures are also scattered around the area for you to take photos with. pyeongchang-trout-festival-7This festival is something you must check out this winter season as it’s fun for people of all ages. This Shuttle Bus Package offers round-trip transportation for convenience and you’ll also be able to enjoy ice fishing and the activities! pyeongchang-troutMake sure you also check out Yongpyong Ski Resort which is located nearby! With 28 slopes, it’s great for skiers of all levels and features Asia’s longest gondola course spanning 7.4 km!
2d1n_yongpyong_ice-fishingAlpensia Ski Resort is another great choice with 6 slopes, top-notch leisure facilities and 5-star accommodation. You can enjoy both the ice fishing festivaland skiing at the resorts with our packages! 2d1n_alpensia_ice_fishingBrowse more of our awesome winter tours and ski packages on, Korea’s #1 Travel Shop and plan your trip with us this winter 2016-17!

Hongdae’s Zandari Festa Indie Music Showcase with ‘Atlas Wyld’ & ‘Say Sue Me’

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Since the fall of 2012, Zandari Festa has brought Korean, expat and international musical acts to Hongdae, an area of Seoul known to be the indie music capital of South Korea. This year’s Zandari Festa took place from September 30 to October 3 with a reported 160 plus acts performing at a dozen venues, with what seemed to be a larger focus on bands from England and France than in previous years. Korea FM host Chance Dorland spoke with British act Atlas Wynd and Busan’s Say Sue Me after their performances in Hongdae. Photos courtesy of Douglas Vautour Photography.

This episode is brought to you by Podcast Assist & its $30 per hour flat rate podcasting voice overs, editing, mastering, transcriptions & even hosting (select a topic, they’ll create & host the podcast). Visit for more information. 

If the audio player doesn’t load, stream the episode online here or download the full episode here.

Interview answers, both in written & audio form, have been edited for length & clarity.

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The post Hongdae’s Zandari Festa Indie Music Showcase with ‘Atlas Wyld’ & ‘Say Sue Me’ appeared first on Korea FM.

Korean Phrases Ep. 47: 동문서답

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This week we have a new "Korean Phrases" video, and we're going to be learning another useful idiom from 한자 (Chinese characters used in Korean).

We'll be learning about the idiom 동문서답.

Check out the video below!

The post Korean Phrases Ep. 47: 동문서답 appeared first on Learn Korean with GO! Billy Korean.

Winter Bucket List 2016-17 | Must-Dos In South Korea For This Winter

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Bundle up, winter’s here! Though the cool and crisp autumn lasted only a few weeks, don’t despair! There are tons of fun things to do from ice skating to sledding to walking along snow-covered paths. If you’re not an outdoor person and prefer to stay warm inside, not to worry as you can enjoy exploring … Continue reading Winter Bucket List 2016-17 | Must-Dos In South Korea For This Winter

Is the Park Geun Hye Scandal is Paralyzing Government in South Korea?

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This is the English-language version of an article I published with Newsweek Japan last week.

Is anyone else, among readers living in Korea, amazed at how the coverage of this is now essentially non-stop? If you turn on any of the cable news stations here now, it’s Park Geun Hye all day all the time.

My big concern is that she stays on, perhaps surviving an impeachment vote or somehow or other lurching on into the spring next year, while facing regular demonstrations. How much longer will those protests say so peaceful? To date, they have been remarkably non-violent. But civil unrest is not hard to imagine if a hugely unpopular president stays in office for months and months with an approval rating around 4%. Even Park seemed to realize this when she gave that kinda-sorta resignation speech last Wednesday.

And the answer to the post title question is yes, in case you haven’t figure that out yet. Let’s just hope the Norks don’t pull some hijink while the ROKG is frozen like this. God forbid we have some executive-vs-legislative battle over who leads the response.

My previous writing on this scandal is here.

The full essay follows the jump.



he scandal around South Korean president Park Geun Hye and her disgraced confidante is spinning out of control. Park is unlikely to step down, and the barriers to impeachment in South Korea are high, so she is likely to hang grimly onto her office. But her obstinance in the face of massive social resistance is paralyzing government in Seoul. Should she stay for the remaining fifteen months of her term, South Korea may well become ungovernable. It will be unclear who will wield legitimate authority when the president is so widely loathed, and if the street protests and opposition resistance continue, as is expected. The constant threat of North Korean provocation means a long period of stasis presents a strategic risk as well.


The Choi Soon Sil Scandal


The president’s close associate, Choi Soon Sil, has been a family friend for decades. Choi’s father apparently convinced an impressionable young Park that he could commune with her dead mother. When Choi the father died, it appears that his daughter, Soon Sil, stepped into his emerging role as spiritual advisor to Park. The influence of the Chois over Park has been widely likened to Rasputin’s influence over the last czar of Russia. Park herself has not disclosed the details of the relationship, but we do know now that she granted Choi extraordinarily wide reach within her administration, even though Choi had no relevant training or experience in politics. Choi then traded on this influence to amass wealth and favors for herself.

So bizarre is this and so wide was Choi’s reach, that the scandal has provoked the largest, most sustained street demonstrations in Korea since the democratization protests of the 1980s. More than one million South Koreans protested on Saturday November 12, a staggering 2% of the entire national population on the streets at one time. Choi apparently influenced areas as wide-ranging as the presidential wardrobe, presidential staffing choices, and North Korea policy. All this was conducted in secret, which much bureaucratic infighting as some staff sought to limit Choi’s power. Apparently the president even took action against those staffers, replacing them with others who would not challenge Choi. When all this broke, local media portrayed Park as a string puppet; the international press picked-up this interpretation as well. Park’s approval rating crashed to below 5%. The opposition parties abjured all cooperation with the administration, while Park’s party wants her to exit the party and govern as an independent. Should the National Assembly choose to impeach Park, much would defend on how these former party supporters would vote.

What if Park Stays?


Park almost certainly will not resign. She has not responded to the protests, and she has opened her administration to an independent prosecutor to placate public opinion. An old associate of her father’s (he was also president), Kim Jong Pil, said in a widely covered interview that she is too stubborn to step aside. Impeachment is possible, but the opposition must muster a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly (200 out of 300 MPs), on top of which the Korean high court, the Constitutional Court must also concur with a two-thirds majority (six of nine justices). This latter requirement blocked the impeachment of a previous president in 2004.

But with public opinion so strongly against her, plus the opposition parties and some of Park’s own party members, the real question is, can she govern if she stays? The National Assembly will almost certainly reject any meaningful cooperation on legislation. Street protests, endless media coverage, and rolling investigations that seems to uncover more with each passing week, will distract the administration so much, that little presidential or staff time will remain for the affairs of state. As American president Richard Nixon sought to fight off the Watergate investigation, it consumed so much of the White House staff’s time, that the administration was effectively paralyzed. One could easily foresee the same thing happening here.

Park has suggested conceding power over domestic policy to the prime minister. But the opposition, sensing blood in the water and keen to win next year’s presidential election, has dragged its feet on this. This would also probably generate major policy confusion, as the Korean prime minister’s role to date has been to be a president-in-waiting, like the American vice president, rather than to guide policy. It is easy to predict that this newly empowered PM would clash with the sitting president creating gridlock, as is frequently the case in countries with both a powerful president and PM. There is no Korean precedent or constitutional direction for such a prime ministership. This would be uncharted waters.

This Will End

The good news is that South Korea is scheduled to have a presidential election on December 20, 2017, with the inauguration on February 25, 2018. That at least puts a time limit on the chaos. A scandal of this magnitude, the greatest in South Korean democratic history, could have been disastrous in Park’s early years. But fifteen months is still a long time for a democratic government to be effectively paralyzed like this. Except for Watergate, I am hard-pressed to think of any other modern democracy frozen in crisis for such a long time.

If Park stays, her administration will nonetheless be neutered. She will be a care-taker, riding out the reminder of her term. The parliament will give her nothing. A technocratic PM may be able to make small decisions, but were any major issues or crises to arise, it is simply unclear who would rule. This would be a dangerous time for any democracy. Rabble rousers and troublemakers might arise. Civil unrest is even possible if Park insists on her full presidential privileges in the face of a nearly united rejection of her presidency. And of course, always lurking in the background is North Korea, ever-ready to take advantage of trouble and disarray in the South.

International Ramifications


The greatest risk, should South Korea descend into ungovernable stasis next year, is indecisiveness in the face of a North Korean provocation. North Korea is notorious for its efforts to intervene and disrupt South Korean life. Many analysts believe North Korea times its provocations, such as missile launches, to influence South Korean political decisions and elections. Even were Park’s popularity very high, North Korean action next year around events such as US-South Korean military drills is entirely predictable.

The international fallout could expand beyond North Korean opportunism should the crisis grind on. To date, the major states in Korea’s foreign relations have remained quiet. All have their own scandals too, and even in her troubles, Park Geun Hye compares favorably to the tyrants of the Chinese Communist Party or irresponsible populist Donald Trump. Nonetheless three problems will arise in the coming months as serious foreign policy decisions can no longer be put off:

First, can Park’s administration convincingly negotiate the trade deals which are the life-blood of Korea’s export economy? A Central American Free Trade Agreement with a bloc of small Latin American states is nearing completion. In normal circumstances, this would be non-controversial, but now it is unclear if the opposition will ratify the deal. To schedule a vote on the deal and support it would signal business as usual, a return to normalcy with Park submitting legislation to the assembly, and MPs voting on it as required. Yet the assembly’s majority has declared her unfit for office. To work with her would undercut that position and ‘normalize’ her continuation in office.

Second, can Park push the South Korean public toward unpopular foreign agreements such as intelligence sharing with Japan on North Korea, or American THAAD missile defense in the region? Traditionally, presidents (or prime ministers) in democracies can use the ‘bully pulpit’ to persuade and cajole the public to endorse policies which otherwise might be controversial. Park has done so in the past regarding outreach to China on North Korea, and THAAD. But public support for THAAD is fragile, and for intelligence sharing it is low (around 30%). A functional Park administration could move those public numbers by launching a concerted national campaign of persuasion and discussion in the media, parliament, and presidential addresses. That is all but impossible now, because the scandal is becoming all-consuming and her approval rating is historically low. Intelligence sharing with Japan will likely fail this year, as it did four years ago, and the left is unlikely to give up on THAAD now that the president is in so much trouble. THAAD is scheduled for deployment next year; the scandal opens renewed opportunities to fight it.

Finally, as Park shows herself unable to deliver the Korean public support for important foreign policy decisions, foreign leaders will increasingly ignore her. If Shinzo Abe, for example, figures her approval rating is so poor that she cannot deliver intelligence sharing, why even try to pursue it now? Why not simply wait for her successor? As Park flails on foreign policy issues such as THAAD, simply due to scandal gridlock, foreign leaders will treat her as a lame-duck and forestall Korean deals until spring 2018.

Hence the obvious strategic vulnerability of ongoing chaos at the highest levels in Seoul. This is a gift to North Korea, precisely the sort of episode it uses to tell its people that South Korea is corrupt and decadent, precisely the sort of disruption it could worsen with even more disruption. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if, somewhere in Pyongyang’s backrooms, there was not active discussion of how to take advantage of this mess. Were North Korea to lash out, who could authoritatively shape the South Korean response? Can Park, if she is facing months of street and parliamentary obstruction? Would the left, which has traditionally been somewhat sympathetic to North Korea, support a president whom it demands should be impeached? The potential for trouble is extraordinary.

Filed under: Domestic Politics, Korea (South), Media, Newsweek, Park Geun Hye

How to Enjoy a Family Ski Trip Without Skiing in South Korea

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Can’t ski? Won’t ski? Winter’s here and snowy getaways don’t mean that your family has to be bored at home with nothing to do while everyone’s out hitting the slopes. Many resorts offer multiple family-friendly activities that can be enjoyed during ski season. Get ready for endless hours of fun even without skiing! 1. Ride … Continue reading How to Enjoy a Family Ski Trip Without Skiing in South Korea

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