SEOUL — When Kim Young-sam became South Korea’s first democratically elected civilian president in 1993, he vowed to cure the country of the “Korean disease,” the political corruption that had become endemic.
Kim oversaw an ambitious drive to clean up the country, even authorizing the arrest of his
two immediate predecessors on corruption-related charges, although he eventually became infected by the “disease” himself when his son was arrested on corruption and bribery charges.
Corruption, bribery, embezzlement and the abuse of power have been modulated over the past generation but remain indisputable components of official South Korea, as the scandal now engulfing President Park Geun-hye shows.
Park is set to be questioned by prosecutors as soon as Thursday about her role in an influence-peddling scandal revolving around a friend of 40 years.
Although every South Korean president since democratization in 1987 has become ensnared by corruption in one way or another, Park will become the first incumbent to be grilled by prosecutors. She cannot be charged while in office but could be indicted after she leaves, which may happen sooner than expected.
Most analysts had thought Park would try to ride out the storm until the next election, in December 2017.
But after a third week of huge protests — hundreds of thousands gathered in central Seoul on Saturday, drawing comparisons to the demonstrations that ended military rule almost 30 years ago — the chances of her being forced out of office have increased. Eurasia Group, a consulting firm that assesses risk, now puts the probability at 70 percent.
“The situation has reached a point of no return,” Moon Jae-in, an opposition politician and presidential hopeful, said Tuesday. Up to then, he had demanded that she hand over day-to-day running of the country to the prime minister, chosen by parliament. But now, he said, that was no longer sufficient. “I, along with the citizens, will carry out a nationwide campaign for Park’s resignation until she declares she will unconditionally step aside,” he said.
The scandal flared last month when it emerged that Park, widely considered a distant figure, was being secretly advised by a friend of 40 years, a woman with no policy background but with ties to a religious cult.
The woman, Choi Soon-sil, is accused of receiving classified information and of using her ties to Park to raise up to $70 million from big business groups for two foundations — most of which she is said to have siphoned off — and to get her daughter into a prestigious university. She is in custody and is expected to be indicted this week.
Park’s attempts at quelling the public fury over this “shadow president” have amounted to nothing, as shown by the increasingly large protests against her.
The scandal has highlighted just how prevalent “the Korean disease” remains.
It encompasses the presidential Blue House, with some of Park’s aides suspected of helping Choi raise money, and big business, with Samsung alone said to have given $20 million directly to Choi or to her foundations. Senior officials from big conglomerates including Samsung, Hyundai Motors and LG have been called in for questioning. This adds to the woes at Samsung, already reeling from the withdrawal of one its flagship products, the Galaxy Note 7 phone.
It also involves the powerful prosecutors office, which is accused of being too political. A prominent former prosecutor who served as a senior presidential secretary to Park is now under investigation on suspicion of helping Choi and tipping off big businesses to pending raids. And hard-charging prosecutors often end up working in the Blue House or at the big conglomerates, further cementing personal links between institutions.
Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the University of California at San Diego, said the scandal is bigger than Watergate.
“It’s the scope of the violations that are in play,” he said. “There’s the classified information, the foundations, the university. There are half a dozen discrete things that are likely to be illegal.”
Ra Jong-yil, a former deputy director of South Korean intelligence, also sees echoes of the Watergate scandal. “The easiest way to fix this is for the president to resign, just like Nixon did,” Ra said.
The kind of corruption seen in South Korea is partly the result of government-sponsored industrialization. It was Park’s father, authoritarian president Park Chung-hee, who supported the creation of corporate giants
such as Samsung and Hyundai, encouraging links between government and business in the 1960s and 1970s that remain strong today.
Park learned about the coalition of business and politics from her father, said Kim Dong-choon, a professor of social sciences at Sungkonghoe University. “Park’s watch stopped in the 1970s,” he said.
This homogeneous nation also pits friendship and loyalty against following the law.
“This is a very communitarian society, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to go with the flow,” said Scott Snyder, a Korea specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“In America, friendships are run as contractual relationships and people know the boundaries, operate within social rules of etiquette that generate a little more distance,” Snyder said.
But in South Korea, creating this kind of distance is contrary to the bond of friendship. The concept of “butak” — literally “favor,” but with a deep sense of obligation and expectation attached — means that it is hard to say no when a friend asks you for something.
This concept makes it difficult to create checks and balances that can overcome personal networks, Snyder said.
“Institutions end up being compromised by the fact that Mr. Kim at the Blue House went to elementary school with Mr. Lee at the prosecutors office,” he said. “That’s the classic struggle that makes corruption endemic.”
This scandal comes just after South Korea enacted a new law designed to root out bribery and corruption, prohibiting people from spending more than $27 on a meal for public officials, employees of state-run companies or journalists.
But that law was designed to target corruption at the lower end of the scale, doing little to address the kinds of issues raised in “Choi-gate,” as it is known here.
Almost two-thirds of people surveyed by the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission in 2014 said they thought South Korean society was corrupt.
Tackling this problem will not be easy, said Lee Tae-ho of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, an activist organization.
“We are calling for Park’s resignation, but because there are many structural problems, we are calling for citizens to help solve this problem,” he said. “The solutions should come from the political sphere, but the political sphere also has problems.”
Lee noted that some left-wing parties had been banned.
Kim Dong-choon, the social scientist, said, “This is not just about Park’s and Choi’s misdeeds but other forces — the prosecutorial system, the bureaucratic system — and the shortcomings that have made this incident possible.”
“This is a great opportunity for Koreans to rebuild our society and our politics,” Kim said, “to overcome old ways of thinking.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.