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Asia

South Korea's business leaders distance themselves from Park

President Park Geun-hye faces impeachment in a vote in parliament on Friday, but many in South Korea fear economic and security instability when she steps down. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

South Korea's most powerful corporate leaders were criticized and chastised in the nation's parliament on Tuesday, December 6, with politicians lining up to accuse them of being complicit in the corruption scandal that has brought the government of President Park Geun-hye to its knees.

On the details of a scandal that has paralyzed the administration for close to two months, some claimed to have forgotten or to have never had any knowledge of the alleged actions, but they all refused to accept that donations their companies made to two foundations controlled by Choi Soon-sil, President Park's friend and confidante, were bribes.

Lee Jae-yong, the head of the Samsung Group, came in for particular attention from the massed ranks of politicians due to donations totaling more than W20 billion (15.96 million euros) to the Mir and K-Sports foundations. The two organizations were set up by Choi, who is presently under arrest on suspicion of using her friendship with the president to strong-arm corporations into providing cash and then using those funds to pay for her lavish lifestyle.

No special treatment

The Samsung chief went to great lengths to deny that his company had received any special treatment - such as support for a controversial merger with another company - in return for its generosity.

But Lee did hint in his testimony at the pressure that his company was under from the Blue House, the presidential office.

He told the parliament that a decision on providing the donations to projects headed by Choi were "not voluntary," adding "It was an inescapable situation for us."

Südkorea Rede von Präsidentin Park Geun-Hye (picture-alliance/dpa/Jeon Heon-Kyun)

South Korean President Park's approval rating sinks to new low

That position was echoed by Hur Chang-soo, chairman of GS Group, who told the hearing "It is hard to ignore a request from the government. That is the reality in Korea."

Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of international relations at Tokyo's International Christian University, says the revelations will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone in South Korea.

"These protestations are really not credible," he told DW. "South Korean politicians are in power because of the support they receive from the nation's 'chaebols' (business conglomerate) and this situation is no different from the way in which business and politics has always been done there.

"The two sides simply scratch each others' backs, and the South Korean people understand that relationship. They accept that it is muddy and problematic and that those relationships do not necessarily meet the needs of the ordinary people," he added.

Economic instability

But there is a very important flip side; the top conglomerates in South Korea employ a vast number of people and anything that destabilizes their business will have significant repercussions for their employees, their families and the broader national economy.

"Ordinary Korean people have very mixed feelings," Nagy said. "They know that the security of the 'chaebols' is important to society and economic stability, but that brings with it corporations' direct involvement in politics and the decision-making process."

Südkorea Massenproteste in Seoul gegen Präsidentin Park Geun Hye (Reuters/K. Hong-Ji)

Millions of ordinary Koreans have turned out for massive protests every weekend since the scandal first broke

Regardless of the testimony of the nation's business leaders, it appears inevitable that Park will not see out a term that is scheduled to end in December of next year. Parliament will debate her impeachment on Friday and given the baying from the media and the public for her blood, the vote is a foregone conclusion.

Park has promised to abide by parliament's decision but is hoping to be able to remain in office until April. She is hoping that members of her Saenuri Party will ensure that outcome in the vote, although it is clear that the majority of her erstwhile allies are doing so not because they are loyal to her leadership but because they want to avoid more turbulence in the corridors of power in Seoul - and a national election in which they would be at the mercy of an angry electorate.

And while millions of ordinary Koreans have turned out for massive protests every weekend since the scandal first broke, many believe the demonstrators have achieved their aim and that continued disruptions in society could have a negative impact on the two main areas of concern for the nation today; the economy and the security threat posed by North Korea.

'Extremely concerned'

"I am extremely concerned about the situation as everyone in South Korea is talking about Park and what she has done, but we need to look at the bigger picture and the international situation," said Song Young-chae, a professor in the Center for Global Creation and Collaboration at Seoul's Sangmyung University.

Nordkorea Besuch Kim Jong-Un Produktionstätte Lebensmittel (Imago/Xinhua/KCNA)

North Korea revels in the South's political crisis

"The political situation is bad and I agree that if Park is proven to have done anything that is illegal then she must take responsibility, but I feel that the economic and security situations that we face are more important right now," he told DW.

The nation's potential economic partners are likely to be put off by widespread political discontent and questions over the longevity of the Park administration, he said, while Pyongyang can be expected to make as much political capital out of Seoul's political crisis. And, if it senses a weakness in the South's resolve or readiness, that could evolve into a military threat, Song said.

And while Park may want to cling on to power until April, Nagy believes that to be an impossible ambition.

"It is not realistic because all her policies - but particularly in the key areas of the economy and security - become increasingly delegitimized," he said.

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