SEOUL – The “female Rasputin” corruption case rocked South Korea in 2017 with the impeachment and arrest of former president Park Geun-hye, which later led to a snap election and raised questions over the inner workings of the country’s economic establishment.
The saga started when a simple electronic tablet was found in the fall of 2016. The discovery showed the massive influence that Park’s close friend Choi Soon-sil – the so-called “female Rasputin” – exercised over the president and her policies despite not holding an official position.
The case sparked a wave of citizen protests – the likes of which had not been seen since the 1987 pro-democracy movement – calling for Park’s resignation.
She came to power in 2012 on the back of the support enjoyed by her father, Park Chung-hee, a South Korean general who ruled with an iron fist from 1961 to 1979 but who is revered as the man who triggered South Korea’s “economic miracle.”
Park became the country’s first democratically elected president to be forced from office after the Constitutional Court ended up ratifying her parliamentary dismissal on March 10, before she was placed in pre-trial detention and accused of leaks of classified information, influence-peddling and bribery, among other charges.
According to the investigation, Choi and Park harassed and silenced their opponents, as well as took advantage of presidential power and influence.
Both are accused of extorting about $50 million from companies in exchange for the support of Park’s government.
Park, who was arrested soon after her impeachment, could face a life sentence if she is found guilty of bribery – the most serious charge against her.
The scandal affected more than 50 companies, including several “chaebol” (a large industrial conglomerate that is run and controlled by an owner or family in South Korea) such as LG, Hyundai and Samsung.
Samsung’s heir and de-facto president Lee Jae-yong was among the defendants in the case and ended up receiving a five-year prison sentence for participating in Choi and Park’s bribery network.
The scandal was a serious blow to the two family clans – the Lees and the Parks – who had played a key role in the so-called “Miracle on the Han River,” the period of economic growth that since the 1960s had turned a country devastated by war into one of the largest economies in the world thanks to strong institutional support for the “chaebol.”
South Koreans were angered when they learned how these families had exploited the nepotism and authoritarianism of their predecessors to serve their own interests.
The indignation has been especially perceptible among the youth, who took to the streets to demand a country free of economic inequality.
Although most followers who remain loyal to Park and her conservative party are the elderly and retired, many over the age of 65 voted for Moon Jae-in, the liberal politician who won the presidential elections on May 9.
Voters like them are part of the generation who worked in the plants of the “chaebol” and in many cases were not even entitled to a pension that rarely exceeds $200 per month.
These are the main challenges that Moon has inherited along with the need to rebuild ties with North Korea, against whom the South fought the Korean War (1950-1953), which technically remains the reality on the peninsula because hostilities ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty.