Impeach!Impeach! Korea 2016
From a western journalist’s standpoint, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2016 was a triumph for South Korea’s democracy–which it was– but there’s a catch: many don’t understand the intensity of the situation through a Korean cultural lens. Why was Park Geun-Hye so controversial to the Korean people? I’ll abbreviate her name to PGH, since that’s the hip and trendy thing to do with politicians’ names now.
We all know embezzlement is common in all countries. Politicians steal from public funds; it happens. In Korea, it’s also expected to happen, no surprise. PGH did extort $70 million USD worth of tax money to her slush fund to fund crony friends.
What makes PGH uniquely scary is WHO convinced her to do it. What really irritated the Korean psyche was that she showed mental instability by being under control of a religious cult leader that claimed to be in contact with her dead mother. Sounds crazy? Let me give you some background.
Korea in the 60s and 70s
PGH is the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-Hee of Korea’s 3rd and 4th Republics. There were many attempts on his life , including a mishap where a North Korean spy accidentally took the life PGH’s mother while attempting to shoot the president. This event traumatized her and made her vulnerable to manipulation—and that’s exactly what happened. A religious leader named Choi Tae-Min claimed that he had special abilities to talk to PGH’s mother. This created an emotional dependency that PGH couldn’t escape from. Using this connection, his family amassed a fortune, and even PGH’s father, the president, had to personally interrogate him. Realizing that his daughter needed Choi for emotional dependency and peace of mind, he turned a blind eye.
Here’s where the fun gets started…
Fast forward to 2012, PGH is elected as the first female President of South Korea and ushered in her party: The Saenuri Party. Saenuri roughly means “New Frontier”. Choi Tae-Min had long passed away, but the family still wanted their grip on PGH, so his daughter Choi Soon-Sil took over for the “channeling” of spiritual activities.
Little did we know how influential Choi Soon-Sil was on PGH, until she irresponsibly left her Galaxy Tab in a meeting room unlocked. All the information revealed her secrets, including revising the president’s speeches, organizing events, and even telling the president what to say. She also picked out the president’s wardrobe and treated PGH as beneath her. South Korea was indirectly being run by this monster. Choi Soon-Sil fled the country, but eventually was repatriated and sentenced to 20 years in prison. PGH was impeached and had to resign and it was an embarrassing moment on the national stage.
Anyone who has ever lived in Korea knows what the cultural taboos are. Mental illness is one of those taboos and should never be discussed. Saving face and defending your reputation is important. Corruption is one thing, but for your Head of the State to be mentally feeble enough to be manipulated by a bizarre cult leader broke the taboos on so many levels and made the nation lose face.
Yes, she was corrupt for monetary reasons, but even embezzlement is rational. We understand why people do it, and I hate to say it but, it’s quite normal globally. To be convinced that a pseudo-religious fortune teller could talk to your deceased parent, and also tell YOU—the president—how to run a nation, is beyond blood curdling repulsive. The Korean people demanded justice and got it.
What the hell do I know?
This all happened right after I left Korea and my two year expat life there. The events were being reported in western media, and yes, they got their points right. But what I’ve learned is that when you make an effort to understand the context of the Korean mindset, you begin to understand the intensity of the situation and why it was so outrageous. It wasn’t just an event that was political, it wasn’t just an event that made good headlines, but it deeply agitated the Korean national soul to its depths. This is something one can only understand by being there.
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