There are political scandals, there are odd political scandals, and then there’s whatever is happening in South Korea. The controversy centers on the murky relationship between President Park Geun-hye and an old friend named Choi Soon-sil. Park is accused of providing Choi with access to classified information. Choi is accused of using her personal connection to Park to embezzle large amounts of money. Park has publicly apologized for sharing sensitive documents with Choi, who has so far denied wrongdoing.
But it’s the family history behind the controversy that makes this story so strange. President Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military strongman who essentially created modern South Korea in the 1960s and ’70s. During his presidency, Choi Tae-min, a controversial cult leader, became a spiritual adviser to the Park family–and to the President’s daughter in particular. Choi Soon-sil, the woman at the center of the current storm, is Choi Tae-min’s daughter. Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979, and some have claimed that the killing was inspired by fear of Choi Tae-min’s Rasputin-like influence on him. This family parallel backstory makes the current controversy all the more salacious. Opposition parties demand a formal investigation. Protests have erupted in Seoul.
President Park will finish her term as scheduled in February 2018. But she won’t accomplish much between now and then. Her economic reform agenda has gone nowhere, and she won’t have the strength to prevent opposition parties from enacting plans to reduce the huge power of chaebols, South Korea’s family-owned business conglomerates.
Relations with Washington won’t suffer much damage. The increasing nuclear threat from North Korea ensures that deployment of a U.S.-made high-altitude missile battery will be completed by the end of next year. Relations with Japan are more complicated. Late last year, Park and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to resolve a long-running dispute over “comfort women,” the Koreans forced into sexual slavery by Japanese occupiers during World War II. Abe agreed that Japan would provide indirect compensation for victims. The Choi scandal may well embolden critics of the deal who say Park is sweeping a national tragedy under the rug. If the agreement becomes an issue in next December’s presidential election, relations between the two countries will sour quickly.
For the next election, Park may have hoped that outgoing U.N. head Ban Ki-moon would represent her party and that his victory would extend her political influence after she leaves office. But even if Ban runs and wins, Park is permanently compromised.
This appears in the November 14, 2016 issue of TIME.
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