[Column] Park Geun-hye déjà vu in Yoon Suk-yeol

Posted on : 2024-04-24 16:55 KST Modified on : 2024-04-24 16:55 KST
Park Geun-hye’s experience is a cautionary tale for Yoon
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) sees off impeached former President Park Geun-hye after a luncheon on Dec. 29, 2023, at the presidential residence. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (right) sees off impeached former President Park Geun-hye after a luncheon on Dec. 29, 2023, at the presidential residence. (courtesy of the presidential office)

By Kang Hee-cheol, editorial writer

The general elections in April ended in defeat for the ruling party. Appeals for the public to punish the opposition party went unheard. Pundits clamored that the president was responsible for the election loss.

After a pause, the president seemed to reckon with the consequences. “Going forward, I will respect the will of the people with humility, while making the public livelihood the greatest priority of my administration,” the president said in a meeting of advisers.

But despite the remarks about “public livelihood” and “humility,” the president neither apologized nor stood before the public or the press.

The president’s support crashed in the next round of public opinion polls — below 30%, according to Gallup, the lowest point since the president’s inauguration.

I’m not talking about President Yoon Suk-yeol, but former President Park Geun-hye, eight years ago. She lost, but didn’t act like it. Instead of owning up to defeat, she opted for the “spiritual victory” spoken of by Chinese writer Lu Xun.

Park’s behavior is strikingly similar to Yoon’s today.

Needless to say, the two aren’t in the same situation. Yoon has far more time left in office than Park did. He hasn’t even reached the midpoint of his five-year term.

The composition of the National Assembly is different, too. The ruling party lost its majority in the general elections on April 13, 2016, just as they did this month. But back then, the ruling party was just one seat behind the opposition party (122 to 123 seats).

This month’s general elections gave the main opposition Democratic Party a 175-to-108 advantage against the ruling People Power Party (PPP), with a total of 192 seats going to the broader opposition field.

Park largely maintained her control over the ruling party even after its defeat in the general elections. But among the latest batch of PPP lawmakers, most of the pro-Yoon figures are only tepid in their allegiance. They’ll still be lawmakers when Yoon’s presidency is over. And he has three more years to endure in such brutal conditions.

Yoon has another serious problem to deal with: his wife, first lady Kim Keon-hee.

There were widespread rumors in the prosecution service about a reshuffle of high-ranking prosecutors while a special prosecutor act was being mooted around the turn of the year. The rumors focused on the possibility that Song Gyeong-ho, head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, would be relocated to a high prosecutors’ office in the provinces and replaced with another Yoon loyalist who is currently serving as the head of a district prosecutors’ office.

All the fuss was reportedly set off by the possibility of Kim being called in for questioning. People said that Yoon had been infuriated by reports that a summons for the first lady was “inevitable.” The Deutsch Motors stock price manipulation case that had been sealed up so carefully was on the verge of breaking open.

But the reshuffle didn’t happen, and the rumors died down. Yoon vetoed the special prosecutor act, and Kim is still just a suspect in an ongoing criminal investigation. The people indicted in that case have already finished their first trial and are on to their appeal, while Kim hasn’t been questioned even once.

That makes quite a contrast with the wife of opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, who is standing trial for allegedly treating people to a meal worth 100,000 won.

I doubt that the PPP’s resounding defeat in the general elections could be explained without referring to this kind of unfair and unreasonable behavior, as well as Yoon’s hypocritical attitude.

Numerous people say they’ve seen Yoon lose his temper whenever Kim is discussed in even a mildly negative light. As a result, Kim is considered “untouchable” in the presidential office and PPP. That’s been true for the two years before the general elections. But there’s no telling whether that will remain true for the rest of Yoon’s presidency.

In that respect, Park Geun-hye’s experience is a cautionary tale for Yoon. She failed to recognize the danger she was in after the general elections. She did her best to shield Woo Byung-woo, her presidential secretary for civil affairs at the time, after allegations were raised about his corruption in office.

“I hope you’ll courageously follow your convictions, while viewing your suffering as a badge of pride,” she urged him. Park was so concerned with the technical question of legality that she disregarded the bigger question of where she stood in the public estimation.

Even after allegations were raised about her dubious relationship with Choi Soon-sil, she held out for six more weeks, while blocking the prosecution service from doing its job.

During that time, the sparks ignited a conflagration. The discovery of the “smoking gun” of Choi’s tablet computer caused Park’s defenses to implode, and even the staunchly loyal ruling party could no longer stand by her side.

That led to a time of retribution, when the prosecution service, the special prosecutor, the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court were simultaneously moving against her. And the person who shook Woo down and sent him to prison was Yoon himself.

“Looking back now that the dust has settled, I sometimes think the Choi Soon-sil scandal might never have erupted and the president might never have been impeached and imprisoned if she’d cut ties with Woo more quickly. That’s just speculation, of course,” said a senior aide to the special prosecutor who investigated Park.

Even as Yoon has been trying to sweep the first lady’s scandal under the rug, that scandal has been spinning out of control. The allegations about manipulating stock prices are now combined with Kim Keon-hee’s receipt of a luxury Dior bag in an apparent violation of an anti-graft law.

After its victory in the parliamentary elections, the Democratic Party is eager to assign a special prosecutor to look into those two incidents, as well as allegations concerning suspicious adjustments to a proposed expressway, now canceled, that was supposed to run from Seoul to Yangpyeong.

There are even some signs of support for such an investigation inside the PPP, showing that Kim is now in the public’s bad books.

Following the PPP’s thrashing in the general elections, rumors emerged that Park Young-sun, who served as a minister under Moon Jae-in, might be named prime minister, but that only raised suspicions about Kim meddling in the affairs of state. She has stayed out of the public eye for more than a hundred days now, but that hasn’t proven very helpful.

Plus, the Democratic Party hopes to place Yoon in a pincer by appointing a special prosecutor to investigate the death of a Marine who died during rescue operations in flooding last year.

Can Yoon avoid Park’s fate?

“That’s why in politics you’ve got to remember that there are always enemies in your own ranks,” Kim said, according to a transcript of seven hours of conversations with a reporter that were later made public.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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