On April 20, 2015, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was forced to resign amid a corruption scandal. The incident has highlighted some serious flaws in the management system and leadership style of the Park Geun-hye administration – the secrecy surrounding the decision-making process, the opacity of political strategy, and the reluctance to take other people’s opinions into account. Maybe it is the “voice of blood”, and Park Geun-hye has inherited her authoritarian style of leadership from her father, former President of South Korea Park Chung-hee.
On April 20, 2015, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo was forced to resign amid a corruption scandal. While corruption is part and parcel of political life in South Korea, this latest resignation differs somewhat from previous ones.
It should be noted that the role of prime minister in the South Korean political system is not especially significant. As head of the government structures, the position involves performing administrative and technical functions and coordinating economic processes. When they leave their post, most South Korean prime ministers fall into political oblivion.
Why, then, has Lee Wan-koo’s resignation come as such a surprise to the South Korean political elites, who are no doubt used to such high-level scandals? There are a number of reasons. Firstly, this is the first time that a prime minister has handed in their notice after only two months in office. Secondly, it is the first time that it has been done without the consent of the country’s president, as Park Geun-hye is currently on an official visit to Latin America and will only return to Seoul on April 27, 2015. And it seems that she does not yet have a replacement for Lee Wan-koo. Observers are even speculating that the opposition’s shadow prime minister may be offered the post as a way of quieting government detractors.
Lee Wan-koo’s predecessor, Chung Hong-won, resigned in February following the sinking of the MV Sewol (the ferry capsized in the Yelllow Sea off the South Korean coast a year ago, on April 16, 2014), for which he took responsibility. The tragedy highlighted the impotence and lack of coordination of the South Korean government and remains the most pertinent reason for anti-government protests.
While the previous prime minister’s actions can be respected as a noble deed in front of the president, Lee Wan-koo’s certainly cannot. Mr. Lee’s name was among those that appeared in a note left by businessman Sung Wan-jong before he committed suicide. The so-called “Sung List” contained the names high-level politicians and business people alongside numbers that reportedly represented bribery sums. The Prime Minister is charged with accepting a bribe of $27,000, a seemingly meagre amount by today’s standards. But the opposition nevertheless took advantage of this, and Lee Wan-koo recoiled, awkwardly attempting to weasel his way out of the situation and denying that he even knew Sung Wan-jong, even though the two were known to have talked almost every day on the phone. He then “crossed up” the president, resigning from his post before she had returned from her official trip and thus attracting suspicion as to his loyalty to the administration. He did serious damage to President Park Geun-hye’s reputation. The behaviour of the now former prime minister, who, instead of committing political seppuku, was evasive and ended up entangling himself in his own contradictory statements, has had a negative impact on the image of the entire administration.
The incident has highlighted some serious flaws in the management system and leadership style of the Park Geun-hye administration – the secrecy surrounding the decision-making process, the opacity of political strategy, and the reluctance to take other people’s opinions into account. Maybe it is the “voice of blood”, and Park Geun-hye has inherited her authoritarian style of leadership from her father, former President of South Korea Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country with an iron fist for almost 20 years (1961–1979).
The prospects for the administration clawing itself out of this political crisis are unclear, and will remain as such as long as the current list of uninspired and uninspiring candidates to fill the vacant position of prime minister are being bantered around.
In light of the current political situation, can we expect the South Korean administration to take serious steps and initiatives with regard to economic, foreign and inter-Korean policy before the next presidential elections roll around in two years’ time? Many people in Korea, and indeed around the world, are asking themselves this very question. The issue is worth considering from the perspective of forming partner relations with Seoul, which is a priority for Russia in the Asia-Pacific Region. It is in Russia’s interests to maintain stability on the Korean Peninsula and carry out large-scale infrastructure projects. But given the current situation, and despite the fact that South Korea has thus far refused, under heavy pressure from the United States, to join the sanctions against Russia, Moscow does not need to rely on the appearance of the political will in Seoul to resolve the problems with its northern neighbour.
It is in Russia’s interests to develop trilateral relations with both Koreas. This involves, above all else, rail transit, gas pipeline installation and connecting the three countries’ power systems. For this to happen, there needs to be a thawing of relations between North and South Korea, which Russia would like to facilitate. Russian diplomats have even fantasised about organizing the first face-to-face meeting of the leaders of the two countries in Moscow during Victory Day celebrations. Kim Jong-un has confirmed that he will be in Moscow, but the South Korean President declined the invitation (under pressure from the United States, according to rumours).
Will the scandal surrounding Lee Wan-koo’s resignation have long-lasting consequences? The most likely candidate that the ruling party will put forward in the December 2017 presidential elections is current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose second term in office will end in December 2016. But the wave of corruption in South Korea has taken the shine off his reputation as well. The Conservatives, however, are unlikely to just let the opposition sweep in and take power. The opposition is smaller, fragmented and does not have a charismatic leader. However, it is far too early to make any long-term predictions.