South Korea’s political parties: none immune from corruption?

Photo: Korean Culture and Information Service/Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Heffron

After losing parliamentary elections by a wafer-thin margin earlier this year in April, the ruling party of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, dubbed the “queen of elections”, has been weakening.

Park’s Saenuri Party was beaten by the left-wing opposition Minjoo Party, even though the latter itself had been suffering from factional infighting and breakaways that threatened to split the liberal vote. The progressive Minjoo Party favours reconciliation with North Korea, seeing Park’s policy towards its northern rival as being too stiff and too focused on punishing Pyongyang with sanctions. The opposition has accused the government of being heavy-handed by stamping down on dissent and protest.

Throughout her presidency, Park has clashed endlessly with opposition lawmakers over laws and policies. She has also showed an inability to tolerate disagreement within her own party, which has often inspired factional rifts.

A senior analyst at the Sejong Institute, a think tank, said “It has become difficult for the government to get cooperation from the opposition parties without amending its North Korean policy, which is unevenly about imposing sanctions.”

Widespread corruption

South Korea’s National Election Commission (NEC) is being criticised by opposition parties for double standards in handling corruption allegations within the ruling Saenuri Party and also the smaller opposition People’s Party.

The election watchdog claimed that, in the run-up to the general elections held earlier this year, one of the ruling party’s campaign officials received 39 video clips featuring candidates at no cost from a public relations company, in the form of a “bribe.”

The political party raised queries as to why the NEC did not place the campaign fees below the maximum amount, as it did for the opposition parties, and why it did not check out the aim of the free advantages.

Park said the political party, together with the main opposition Minjoo Party will discuss matters at the Assembly’s Security and Public Administration Committee to question NEC officers.

Meanwhile, the Saenuri Party said it would actively join forces within the prosecution’s investigation of the NEC’s claims. However, it denied that the free video clips done by the public relations company in question constituted bribery.

The Saenuri Party and the Minjoo Party are also currently being severely criticised by the public, because their lawmakers are being scrutinised for hiring family members as interns. The Minjoo Party’s two-term lawmaker Seo Young-kyo has been under fire since last month, when she was found to have hired her daughter and her brother.

The leaderships of both parties have promised to fairly punish their lawmakers’ actions, and vowed to focus on setting an example with translucent policies that will retain the parliament from being tarnished with corrupt actions like favouritism.

The Saenuri Party’s corruption scandal comes as incumbent lawmakers of the People’s Party – Representatives Park Sun-sook and Kim Su-min – are also facing detention for allegedly receiving kickbacks ahead of the election.

Daughter of a dictator, a dictator herself?

Critics say that after the corruption scandal, Park Geun Hye has been employing even more dictatorial methods to power through legislative avenues.

Some South Koreans say that Park is not just the daughter of a dictator, the former President Park Chung-hee who ruled the country with an iron first from 1961 to 1979, but is also a dictator in her own right.

Kim Yong-hyun, a professor at Dongguk University, explained, “People have been tired of President Park continuing to talk about North Korea while the main worry was the economy”.

Park has maintained a firm and uncompromising attitude against nuclear testing in the north, gaining the backing of the world’s superpowers. Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said, “Many are tired with Park’s authoritarian style of administration.”

“I like how the party handle with the North, although it honestly hasn’t done very well with the financial pressures,” said a Seoul businessman who told AFP that he voted for Saenuri because of their hard-line stance towards Pyongyang.

Park has fallen short on most of her key economic policies, a failure she puts down to judiciary delay. But critics accuse her of skewed priorities, poor decision-making and a dictatorial style of leadership.

To repair the cracks, the South Korean government needs to solve a broad array of the challenges the country faces, including a weakening economy, low unemployment, pressures from North Korea and solidarity within the parties.