SEOUL — South Korea’s seemingly endless political crisis could soon be coming to an end, at least for part one. The Constitutional Court is set to hear closing arguments this week in the impeachment case against President Park Geun-hye, with a ruling expected in the first half of March.
She was impeached by the National Assembly in December after it emerged that the famously reclusive president had been taking secret and wide-ranging advice from a confidante and lifelong friend who held no official position and was the daughter of a shamanistic cult leader. That confidante, Choi Soon-sil, is accused of using her relationship with the president to enrich herself — to the tune of $70 million — and win favors for her family. She is on trial for bribery, coercion and abuse of power.
A team of special prosecutors is in the final phase of its investigation of the scandal, with a deadline at the end of this month.
What’s the latest?
This is crunch week for Park, who was suspended from office in December when South Korea’s National Assembly voted to impeach her. The Constitutional Court, which has been holding hearings on whether to uphold the assembly’s motion, is set to hear closing arguments Monday. Park’s lawyers have asked for an extension.
If the court declines, the case will wrap on Friday and the judges are likely to deliver their decision before March 13, when Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi is to step down. The nine-member bench is down to eight after one judge retired in January, and a minimum of seven judges are required to rule on a case.
So if just one judge were to fall ill or abstain, the case would be thrown out. Plus, there are concerns about the validity of a ruling on such an important case from just seven judges.
So will Park Geun-hye appear in court?
The final and the most central figure — the president herself — has yet to be questioned in the scandal. This hearing has been conducted at a rapid pace, with the court sitting two or three times every week — a reflection of the need to resolve the case as quickly as possible and restore South Korea’s political equilibrium.
Park’s lawyers have been attempting to slow the court procedure as much as possible by requesting additional witnesses and lodging a formal request to postpone final arguments. There is still a possibility that Park will insist on appearing in court for her final statement.
The court has been unequivocal in its message to Park’s attorneys. At a hearing Monday, the judges told her lawyers to stop stalling and inform the court by Wednesday if the president will appear. “She is no ordinary person, and we need to make preparations if the president comes,” said Lee, the acting chief justice, according to local reports.
Lee made it clear that Park must show up on the date that the court designates. “If she decides to come after closing arguments, we cannot allow it,” she said.
The court has not decided whether to grant Park’s lawyers’ request to extend the hearings, but experts expect that either way, the court's final ruling will come out in the first half of March.
What happens if the court upholds the impeachment motion?
Park's suspension from office would immediately become an outright dismissal. She would also lose her presidential immunity and be subject to criminal investigation, potentially as a suspect.
Analysts expect the court to side with the National Assembly. “It is anticipated that the court will uphold the impeachment motion, and that would send the right message to the people about wrongfully pursuing personal benefits by abusing one’s power,” said Chung Tae-ho, a law professor at Kyung Hee University.
“Dismissing the motion would be a huge misfortune for the nation, because it would mean that it is acceptable for people to take advantage of their privilege and power,” he said.
Attention would quickly turn to an election, which would have to be held within 60 days of the ruling. Now that the strong conservative contender and former U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon is out of the race, the opposition liberal candidates have the wind at their backs. Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party is leading in the polls, although several other progressives are also doing well.
And if the court overturns the impeachment?
Park would return to her position, and the next presidential election would take place in December as scheduled. But she would serve out the remainder of her five-year term as a severely wounded lame-duck president.
According to a recent poll conducted by YTN, a local media network, more than 70 percent of people think Park should be permanently removed from office, while only 16 percent think the motion should be overturned.
Lee Jae-yong, the de facto leader of South Korea’s Samsung group, has been held at the Seoul Detention Center since last Thursday, housed in a 70-square-foot solitary cell with just a foldable mattress, a TV and a toilet. Quite a change from the life of luxury he usually leads. Three times a day, Lee gets a $1.20 meal of rice, soup and three side dishes on a metal tray, which he must wash afterward. Park’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil, is also held at the same detention center.
Lee’s detention is seen as a reflection of the public’s increasing demand to end South Korea’s deep-rooted corruption involving corporations, the government and the legal system.
The special prosecutors will question Lee again Wednesday and expect to make their decision on whether to indict him by next Tuesday, the deadline for their investigation into a broader political scandal.
An extension has been requested, but it is unclear whether the acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will agree with the recent request, as it could do more damage to his party and the impeached president who appointed him.
How is Samsung connected to the presidential scandal?
More than 50 corporations were swept up in the scandal, but Samsung became the first target for investigation because it was the only conglomerate to have given money directly to Choi, wiring $3 million to her company in Germany in 2015. The money was allegedly used to buy a horse for Choi’s daughter and came on top of the $17 million that the group raised for Choi’s two problematic foundations.
The investigators think that by establishing a link between Samsung and Choi, they will eventually be able to prove a connection with the president. Many of the allegations against Lee were backed up by 39 recently found notebooks of a former presidential aide who kept detailed notes concerning the instructions he received while in his post, according to the special prosecutors.
What does all this turmoil mean for Samsung?
Samsung is by far the biggest conglomerate in South Korea, selling products as diverse as smartphones and apartments, and it accounts for 20 percent of the country’s total exports.
But things started to go wrong last year. First, it was the embarrassing recall of its Galaxy Note 7 phone because of faulty batteries, and now the corruption scandal could further damage the company's global reputation. In an annual Harris Poll ranking the reputations of the 100 most visible companies in the United States, Samsung’s standing plunged from seventh last year to 49th this year.
Lee’s arrest and the potential trial process will further strain Samsung’s long-standing quest to transfer power to the third generation of the Lee family, which continues to control the gigantic conglomerate through a tiny shareholding.
Lee has been running the conglomerate since his father, Lee Kun-hee, was hospitalized almost three years ago after a heart attack, leaving the group in a kind of limbo.
The family has since tried to transfer control from Lee's father to the youngest generation, but this has proved complicated. The Lee family has kept a tight grip on the conglomerate through a labyrinthine cross-shareholding structure, which has enabled family members to control the entire group with a tiny fraction of the shares. Lee’s father holds less than 4 percent of the stock in Samsung Electronics, the group's flagship unit.
The family planned the merger of two Samsung affiliates in 2015 to consolidate the son’s grip on the family business, but in the process, many irregularities allegedly occurred. There is also a link to the current scandal: Samsung is accused of paying bribes to Choi so that she would lean on the National Pension Service, a major Samsung shareholder, to vote in favor of the merger. Samsung denies the allegations.
The conglomerate is fighting back. After Lee was arrested, Samsung put out a one-sentence statement saying that it would do its best “to ensure that the truth is revealed in future court proceedings.” One thing seems certain: Regardless of the court findings, the Lee family and Samsung have a rough ride ahead of them.