South Korea′s Park likely to retain power despite growing protests: analyst | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 15.11.2016
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South Korea's Park likely to retain power despite growing protests: analyst

South Korean President Park Geun-hye faces growing calls for her to step down over a political scandal. But analyst Sven Schwersensky says Park could manage to ride out the current crisis threatening her presidency.

President Park Geun-hye has hired a lawyer ahead of questioning by prosecutors over a snowballing political scandal that has engulfed her administration, her spokesperson said Tuesday.

Park, who would be the first sitting South Korean president to be interrogated in a criminal case, has seen her approval ratings plunge, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to Seoul's streets on Saturday demanding she resign.

The scandal centers on Park's shadowy confidant Choi Soon-sil, who is accused of using her ties with the president to coerce local firms to donate millions of dollars to non-profit foundations that Choi then used for personal gain.

Choi, 60, is also accused of interfering in state affairs to the extent of nominating officials and editing Park's speeches even though she has no official title or security clearance.

Prosecutors on Sunday announced a plan to formally quiz Park this week - Wednesday at the latest - over allegations she helped Choi extract money from the companies and allowed presidential aides to leak documents to her.

Against this backdrop, DW spoke to Seoul-based Korea expert Sven Schwersensky about the current political situation in the country and the probability of Park retaining power amid ongoing political turbulence.

Sven Schwersensky FES Südkorea (Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung)

Schwersensky: 'The president hasn't been able to make good on any of the major reforms she promised during her election campaign'

DW: Why did the country's biggest opposition party cancel the talks planned for today with President Park Geun-hye?

Sven Schwersensky: This decision is symptomatic of the current situation in the country. The offer of talks came originally from the chairman of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP). However, it hadn't apparently been agreed upon with the party's leadership council. Then there was an urgent meeting of the council, in which eight voted against the talks while only two were in favor.

No new date for a meeting has been agreed upon, and that would be totally meaningless under the present situation. That's because, firstly, the big opposition parties did not initially participate in the large demonstrations against the president. And it would therefore be detrimental to their credibility if they went now and said: the people are protesting on the streets, so the president has to step down. But that would be the only thing they, being in opposition, could say to President Park.

Secondly, as an opposition party, the DP does not need an appointment to convey their views to the president.

What does the opposition want? Does it want to see President Park resign or remain in office with lesser power, under a stronger prime minister?

The opposition would benefit more if Park decides to remain in office and delegates more power to the prime minister. In that case, the opposition could now appoint one of its members as premier, who then would be in a better position to contest the next presidential election scheduled for November 2017. But if Park were to decide to call the election immediately, then the opposition could face a big problem finding a candidate agreeable to everyone.

Do you expect President Park to remain in office until next November?

Kim Jong-pil, a former Prime Minister, said yesterday that the president would remain in office even if all South Koreans went out to the streets demanding her resignation. So she is not really under any compulsion to step down and is unlikely to do so. It really does not matter what people think of her. Park's approval ratings are dismally low - at around five percent.

And only if the investigations that are being conducted by the public prosecutor's office reveal that President Park had a parallel cabinet and violated the constitution would there be an impeachment, which in turn will have to be confirmed by the nation's constitutional court.

After the scandal broke out, Park has publicly apologized twice, tried to transform her cabinet and announced her intention to work with the prosecutor. How do you rate Park's crisis management?

It was not an apology the first time round, rather an explanation lasting 90 seconds that she actually had this adviser and that she perhaps made a mistake. And the second time, she spoke a bit longer but even this time round she mentioned some facts without explaining how it all happened and what her exact role in the whole affair was.

The whole affair, however, has now turned into a full blown political scandal shaking her presidency. In this context, I would say that her crisis management is terrible and her every step taken so far has only aggravated the crisis even further.

How is the prevailing public mood in the country?

There was a certain restraint at the first big demonstration that was organized three weeks ago, when 30,000 people participated. Then the number of protesters has increased, with subsequent demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.

During the last protest, there were reportedly up to a million demonstrators. It was well organized and one could see that many organizations have worked together to make these demonstrations a success.

I coincidentally happened to meet Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon on the streets and he told me that he felt it liberating to see the South Korean people taking to the streets again for the sake of democracy.

I also briefly talked to a young policeman who was on duty at the mass protest. I asked him if he was happy about his assignment. And he replied without hesitation: "No, not at all, I'd rather be among the demonstrators." If such a mood prevails even within the police force, then one can only imagine how profound the current political crisis is for Park.

How do you think would Park's presidency go down in history?

The president hasn't been able to make good on any of the major reforms she promised during her election campaign. Moreover, her presidency has been shrouded by tragedies like the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 as well as corruption scandals involving top officials. During the first three years of her presidency, she replaced four prime ministers. And, more importantly, she has been unable to get a grip over the economy.

Then there was the affair involving history text books last year, which could be reignited at the end of this month when the new text books are planned to be unveiled.

So overall there have been too many negative developments during her time in office and it's difficult to draw a balanced assessment of her tenure.

Sven Schwersensky is the Resident Representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Seoul.

The interview was conducted by Esther Felden.