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South Korea: a little weird and a lot confused.

Editorial Staff

The continuing saga of South Korean president PARK Geun-Hye is gripping the South East Asian nation while the rest of the world looks on with mild interest and wonders just how many kinds of kimchi there are. To ignore it would be a mistake.

To understand the background, one requires only two facts: the President has had a life-long association with the family of a religious group that borders on being a cult; Park became especially close to the leader's daughter who has been highly influential in Park's conduct whilst in office.

South Korea is a weird place, in some respects: on the one hand, clearly culturally deeply linked to both China and Japan (vehemently denied by South Koreans but the evidence is there in traditions, costumes, buildings and the like) but with various religious sects, including some evangelical (for which read "non-mainstream) Christian groups. In some parts of the country, it seems as if there is a religious meeting room on almost every street corner.

It is a country in search of a sense of belonging. This is, remember, where the Moonies first appeared. It is a country where beauty is to be found in the selection books of the myriad plastic surgery clinics that thrive, creating a world of artificiality and longing in young boys as teenage girls, in search of a dream, rebuild themselves in the hope of joining a girl-band. They don't do it for the money: the bands are notoriously badly paid, but instead as a modern version of the white-complexioned, overdressed, piano-playing or poetry-reciting parlour showcases of, for example, Victorian England. Or , on a more sordid level, the parade of girls in a dodgy karaoke bar where selection is not based on singing ability. Even the big stars marry into fame and money, usually the family of an industrialist.

Park's friend, confidante, "mentor" - and, if one believes everything, puppet master, is CHOI Soon-Sil. CHOI was charged, with AN Chong-Bum and JEONG Ho-Seong in November 2016, with an offence of abusing their power to arrange for donations to "foundations" controlled by CHOI and the religious group founded by her father. Prosecutors say that PARK is also implicated but, unless the charge is one of treason, she cannot be brought before the courts during her term of office.

Once prosecutors made that clear, moves began to impeach PARK. Parliament voted, in December, to impeach her but under the Constitution, that decision must be confirmed by the Constitutional Court. It is at that time that PARK has the full right of reply. In effect, then, the parliamentary debate and finding can be regarded as a committal hearing, at which it is decided whether there is a prima facie case.

The Constitutional Court hearing began one week ago, on 5th January. So far, it's been little more than each side trading insults. And the star of the show, PARK herself, has not only refused to testify but she hasn't even turned up to Court. She has also refused to be questioned by prosecutors in the original investigation and by the special prosecution team that is now in charge of it.

Although there is a six-month time limit from the Parliamentary vote, the Court is under pressure to make a rapid decision. PARK's absence may be interpreted as caution, to ensure she does not self-incriminate in relation to the criminal case that is likely to follow her out of office or as an insult to the Court. Her legal team is depending on a technical knockout, arguing that the prosecutors have failed to reach the required standard of proof in their allegations.

But one thing is clear: her political legacy will be of someone who should not have been President, either because she is corrupt or because she is a weak person who has effectively handed over some or all of her authority to an unelected person who did not hold an official position in government.

That's a strange argument in Korea where nepotism and cronyism are the norm, especially in business. Also, in Korea, business and politics are often indistinguishable.

But Koreans are waking up and they have noticed that, over generations, the "democracy" they have been sold at election time is not how politics works. Now, they want to change that: they want a government that represents the people, not the interests of a handful of industrialists and king-makers. Senior jobs in civil service roles have, in recent years, been taken by reformers. There are now enough reformers in parliament that they are no longer seen as radical or a noisy nuisance.

PARK will go down in history, but it may well be as the straw that broke the camel's back and in doing so created a new kind of politics in Korea, one where the people take action against corruption and influence and politicians have to learn to answer to their constituents not to those with power, money and influence.