Archive for November, 2016

No Par King

November 7, 2016

For almost two weeks I have been trying to decide how Waking the Dragon might make a meaningful contribution to the public discourse (such as it is) that has been accompanying South Korea’s M-ir Foundation/ Choi Soon-sil scandal.  Each lurid detail of Park/Saenuri corruption that has slithered into public view has been followed by another aspect of the case that is even more appallingly sordid or pathetic.  The worst stereotypes of Korean oligarchic “democracy” have been revealed to be considerable understatements of the awful truth.  Scant wonder that Koreans in their tens of thousands are marching in the streets to demand Park Geun-hye’s immediate resignation.  What could I possibly add to this picture?

Well, I found something: the classic WTD shadow-world perspective that permits the all-seeing eye to form order out of chaos and make sense out of what at first seems incomprehensible.  And the recurrent plotlines of numerous Joseon-dynasty historical dramas provide an important clue to what’s going on in 21st century Seoul.  In short, what you have here is a good old-fashioned succession crisis –updated for the post-modern age.

Back in the day of divine mandate-of-heaven monarchy, orderly succession to the throne and dynastic continuity was what ensured the survival of the Confucian polity and its people.  Earthly affairs were (supposed to be) closely calibrated to the predictable motions of the celestial sphere, and any abrupt deviation from prescribed ritual behavior had the potential to disrupt the harmony between heaven and earth: famine, earthquake, flooding or epidemic disease might thereupon ensue.  Just as one star after another rises in its turn from the eastern horizon at dusk, so too a crown prince must replace the king when his time has come.


This worldview implied two crucial questions for Joseon yangban aristocrats in the royal secretariat and council of ministers:  (1) when has the time come? … and (2) who is the proper crown prince?  Among the just causes for early dismissal: a Joseon king too sick to govern, too infatuated with his concubines to sire an heir with his appointed queen, or too drunk to preside at court rituals.  Rather than wait around for such a king to die of natural causes, (depending on his deficiencies) he would be forced into abdication and retirement, sent into exile, or outright assassinated.  A suitable prince of the royal house would then be installed as king, and celestial harmony would thus be restored.  So who determined which prince would be most suitable?  The most powerful yangban ministerial faction, of course.

In modern-day Korea the danger to the nation is more intense than usual because stars and planets have figuratively aligned to produce a triple succession crisis:

  • the scheduled conclusion of Park Geun-hye‘s presidency in 2017
  • the 2016 U.S. presidential “succession crisis”
  • the chaebol succession crises

Let’s take these one at a time.  First, the 2017 ROK presidential election.  Until the Choi scandal snowballed into a political avalanche in late October, conventional wisdom held that the governing Saenuri Party would be able to retain the presidency by recruiting as its candidate someone seen by Koreans as “above politics” –UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose term expires in December of this year.  Although Ban has no political organization of his own in Korea, earlier this summer several regional Saenuri chieftains signaled willingness to line up behind Ban when the time comes.  Most of these guys are counted among the “anti-Park” wing of the Saenuri Party because they were aligned with former president Lee Myung-bak in the 2007 campaign.  Those who are –or used to be– in the “pro-Park” Saenuri faction were heard to do a lot of grumbling back in July and August when Ban’s name began floating around Chungcheongbuk-do in earnest.  Perhaps they favored a lesser light from Gyongsongnam-do instead.  Whatever.  The key factor here is that Korean patronage-politics-as-usual is about to undergo another round of musical chairs, and trillions of won are at stake.  Members of the ruling party are halfway through a mad scramble to cut each others’ throats and stab each other in the back in order to ensure that they’re not left on the zero side of a zero-sum outcome.  There’s plenty of fodder for scandal in everyday Korean politics, and everyone is trying his best to ensure that someone else ends up in the spotlight.  A lame duck president is ideal for the purpose, because s/he is more newsworthy than a mere mayor or assemblyman, and can therefore monopolize negative media attention.

Second, the good ole USA.  As founder and ultimate guarantor of the South Korean regime for nigh on seventy years, the United States and its policies toward the ROK are crucially important for maintaining economic stability and political continuity in the Land of Morning Calm. So it matters what the U.S. President thinks of Korea and how s/he attends to its security and domestic interests.  The Korean military-industrial complex is very, very nervous about Donald Trump‘s stated intention to withdraw American troops from Korea.  The greater the likelihood of a possible President Trump, the greater the anxiety and panic among South Korean movers and shakers.  Possibilistic thinking can easily outweigh probabilistic analysis when worst-case scenarios intrude on a sleepless night at 3AM.

Third, chaebol succession crises.  As a legacy of Japanese colonial development policies and state capitalism investment programs in the Park Chung-hee era, Korea’s economy today is dominated by massive family-owned multinational conglomerates (i.e., chaebol).  Samsung. Hyundai. Hanwha. LG.  SK. Lotte. Hanjin. Doosan. etc.  Collectively, they account for more than 80% of Korea’s GDP.  Each chaebol is owned, controlled or managed by a single family dynasty, usually that of the group’s founder.  Although some chaebol are publicly traded entities, many employ arcane corporate structures composed of interlocking subsidiaries and holding companies that ensure actual control of business operations remains firmly in the grasp of the founding clan.  Sons, daughters, in-laws, nephews and nieces have been appointed as executives of individual business units, but despite expensive Ivy League educations, many have had difficulty coping with changing conditions in the global economy.  Hanjin Shipping goes bust.  Samsung Electronics’ phones explode.  Kim Jung-un takes Hyundai to the Kaesong cleaners.  And so on.  Worst of all, those complex business structures (initially devised to avoid taxes) now make it difficult for company founders to transfer stock ownership to the next generation without incurring a massive tax burden.  Regulatory corners will have to be cut, government officials will have to avert their eyes and look elsewhere, dissident shareholders (if any) will have to be muzzled.  When the fate of the entire Korean economy is at stake, the rules of the game seem less important than who ends up the winner.

These three succession crises converge in the Choi Soon-sil scandal.  Chaebol executives have been shoveling money into Choi’s eager hands since Park took office (and probably beforehand as well).  But times are tough and soon it will be time for change: next year there will be a new president in the Blue House and a new set of bagmen with their hands out.  Now’s the time for chaebol to begin negotiations with Park’s successor, whoever that may be.  Whoever they choose.

Finally, I promised you a shadow-world perspective and it’s time to deliver.  The turning point in the Choi Soon-sil scandal …

occurred on October 24, when a [reporter from] cable TV network JTBC discovered a Galaxy Tab belonging to Choi Soon-sil in a [Seoul] office that she abandoned. The tablet was the Pandora’s Box –it had Park’s presidential speeches with Choi’s markups, presidential briefs for cabinet meetings, appointment information for presidential aides, chat messages with presidential aides, the president’s vacation schedule, draft designs for commemorative stamps featuring the president, and much, much more.  The tablet was simply left behind in Choi’s office with no encryption, and the files were available for anyone to open.  And just in case Choi Soon-sil denied ownership of the tablet, its image gallery contained her selfie.

Although Ask A Korean! characterized this unencrypted Samsung tablet as a blunder “worthy of ‘World’s Dumbest Criminals'”, I’m gonna offer a different hypothesis accounting for its convenient presence in Choi’s abandoned office.  Consider the possibility that it was planted there by the Korean NIS.

First, what’s the possibility that NIS was totally, blissfully unaware of Choi’s activities?  Zero, absolutely zero.  As a completely politicized intelligence agency, NIS and its operatives would have pulled out all the stops to monitor absolutely everything that Choi was doing, as a matter of national and presidential security.  Which means that all of Choi’s computers, cellphones, automobiles and residences in Korea were totally pwned by NIS surveillance. 100%.  Anything less would be dereliction of duty.

Second, what “proof” do we have that Choi actually owned the jackpot Galaxy Tab?  Almost zero: that selfie photo could have been scraped from any of Choi’s devices and loaded onto the tablet by anybody with access.  And so could all those documents. See above.

Third, I’d be interested to learn why JTBC went to that particular office in the first place: dogged investigative reporting or a tip from someone suggesting that it might be worth a look?  No need to ask how they got inside — a few thousand won to the caretaker would do the trick.

Last, what about the motive?  We can be pretty sure about NIS capability, but what about intent?  Why would NIS nudge President Park under the bus after working so hard to elect her in 2013?  I’m just guessing here, but perhaps it’s because they’ve finally learned that she’s not the man her father was.  And that these desperately dangerous times call for someone who’s actually a leader, rather than a mere symbol (and now a caricature) of authoritarian rule.