Shamanistic shadow adviser behind vital government decisions in South Korea – Asia scholar

South Korea was plunged into a murky political scandal as revelations emerged that the president seeks the advice of a mysterious female friend with ties to a religious cult and other shadow advisers. Hundreds of thousands are flooding the streets in anger, demanding President Park Geun-hye's resignation. Has a group of unelected shamans been running the show in one of the region's most important states? How much damage has been done to South Korea’s policies? And with the election of Donald Trump in the US putting South Korea's security policies in jeopardy, will the public's attention shift to developments overseas? We ask a leading Asia scholar, Professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University – Andrei Lankov.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: A leading Asian studies scholar, professor at Seoul's Kookmin University, Andrei Lankov, welcome to the show, it's great to have you with us. A mystic figure - Choi Soon-sil - is at the centre of a political scandal in South Korea - the daughter of a religious cult leader, a presumed spiritual guru of the President has been influencing everything from the President’s wardrobe to foreign policy strategies. South Korea is an important regional player, a major Western ally. So who has really been running the country all this time - an esoteric sorceress - or the elected president?

Andrei Lankov: This is a question many South Koreans are asking right now. I would probably say, most South Koreans are asking, because South Koreans are sort of used to corruption scandals - it has happened to pretty much every single president so far, maybe with the sole exception of the father of the current president. However, what has been discovered was really surprising - it seems that President Park since the beginning of her Presidency asked opinions of her old friend who is a member of some kind of the traditional shamanistic cult. This lady never graduated from a university, but she had extremely large political clout. She influenced political decisions. It seems that even her boyfriend was much involved, even though he is just a former athlete. Everything was asked: dealing with North Korea, talking with the previous South Korean president, negotiations with the U.S. - name it.

SS: Choi Soon-sil was not the only figure apparently influencing the president - like you've said, the boyfriend, there were other shady characters too - so how did she put together such a band - nicknamed the ‘8 Fairies’ by the Korean press?

AL: I believe it's a part of her personality, because she was always a kind of a bookish, lonely person, she never married and she had a small circle of trusted friends, most of whom she used to know since the 1970s, when she was quite young, and the father of Choi Soon-sil, the female shaman who is currently in the center of the scandal, he was sort of a fatherly figure for president Park in her youth. So this family, this particular family, always had tremendous influence on the President. Obviously she trusted these people, she trusted them for many many years, and for her it was more comfortable to talk to these friends of her youth, than talk to the experts, to the professionals, to the cabinet ministers. She felt far more comfortable, and she obviously tried to keep it secret, but as you know, sooner or later, all secrets are exposed.

SS: Thousands of protesters are calling for President Park’s resignation, and her approval ratings have collapsed - with no authority and her reputation in tatters - has she lost her ability to function as the country’s leader?

AL: For the time being it looks to be the case. First of all, I would dare to correct you - not thousands. Every weekend, in Seoul, there's a massive anti-government demonstration. Last time, it was 150 thousand. This time - probably a quarter of a million. The largest demonstrations, the largest anti-government rallies Seoul has seen in at least ten years, maybe longer. Talking about attitude, the approval rating is indeed very low, and on top of that, 60% of the South Koreans believe now that the President will have to resign.

SS: The rhetoric against Park has become so heated, violent and sexist, do you think Koreans may move on from peaceful demonstrations to violence if she doesn’t step down?

AL: Not a part of the local political tradition, we are not talking Middle East. Violent demonstrations in Korea? Well, you could see it back in the 1980s, last time something which could be described as a violent demonstration in Seoul happened in 1996, I believe. So, well, maybe, occasional clashes with police are possible but not likely, because most of the police are supporting the demonstrators, they are sympathetic and they don't hide it. So, basically, participants are highly unlikely to attack police, and in the current situation we have an unusual unity - everybody, from the extreme left to the extreme right is more or less united in the outrage or distrust of the president. It's a kind of a universal issue. Almost nobody is trying to protect President Park right now.

SS: One man even tried to ram a tractor into the president’s advisor Choi Soon-sil - saying that he came to help her die - this isn’t the first dirty scandal in Korean politics, why are emotions running so wild this time?

AL: Not first, of course. Well, as I have said, corruption scandals have been a part of South Korean politics since the beginning of South Korean history in the late 1940s. If you look at the presidents, one president committed suicide when he was investigated for corruption. Two presidents were arrested and given prison sentence for truly large-scale corruption, we are talking roughly quarter billion dollars stolen by each. Then, one president was overthrown, another president was killed by the chief of his security  - so, if you are talking about scandals, high-level scandals -  don't worry. South Korea is a country where such things happen every year or two. And has it been just another corruption scandal, I believe, that generally speaking, South Korean public would not be that outraged. What they saw is that people without any credentials, people with little education, people whose position was decided exclusively but their old friendship with the President herself - these people were given access to top-secret documents and they were allowed to make decisions on vital political and economic issues. Right now, today, the mood has changed a bit, because of Donald Trump. Of all countries, it's difficult to find a country where Donald Trump would be less popular. Again, it's a sort of bipartisan issue. Both South Korean right and South Korean left cannot stand him, and nobody expected him to win - so for the time being, public attention is distracted. People worry about future, they are afraid that vital economic connections with the U.S. will be under threat, they worry about security, relations with China in the current situation - so for awhile, President Park is sort of forgotten. However, I believe this scandal will be back and we should expect a truly massive demonstration, maybe one of the largest demonstrations, anti-government rallies in entire South Korean history.

SS: At this point Park is willing to give away some power, let the opposition choose a prime minister who’d run the country, and adopt a more symbolic role - what’s the point in that, why not just resign? Can this move South Korea from a presidential republic, to a more parliamentary form of governance?

AL: There have been talks about Parliamentary republic for many years. I don't expect it to happen, long story why. Talking about the reasons why President Park is unwilling to resign - well, I don't know. It looks like that she believes that it will be sort of surrender - and her principle is 'never surrender'. So, as you have mentioned, a compromise is discussed, sort of a Prime Minister, appointed by the opposition, with the agreement of the ruling party. This Prime Minister will become de-facto President for the remaining year, because we have only one year here before the next elections. So, the Prime Minister will be running the country with the President being essentially a symbolic figure.

SS: Park started her term promising to weed out corruption, and signed a sweeping anti-corruption bill - now that this bizarre scandal has erupted, do you think her anti-corruption measures were just for show?

AL: Not for show. As somebody who has been living in South Korea or dealing with South Korea for 30 years, I'm pretty sure that the level of corruption is going down. If you are talking about low-level bureaucracy, mid-level bureaucracy, corruption is indeed quite low now. In this regard, South Korea is not different from a European country. Corruption remains deeply entrenched at the highest level of the government. The law you have mentioned, the so-called 'Kim Young-ran law', which basically has been introduced recently and is effective from September this year - it's targeting what is left of some low and medium scale corruption. It does not touch big players, which actually is the major kind of place where corruption remains, especially in economic activities, because good connections with the government is essentially a major condition for success for any major South Korean company. If you want to run a big business - you have to have good relations with the government, and these relations often imply some kind of corrupt deals.

SS: Park’s line on North Korea has been tough - and as you wrote, not in the least because of the influence of her spiritual advisors who predicted a reunification in two years. Was the most serious hot spot in Asia in danger of exploding, only because she was listening to clairvoyant shamans? Or were there other forces in the Koreas at play who’d benefit from a confrontation?

AL: I would say there are no forces who would benefit from the confrontation, but there are forces who believe that confrontation is necessary. These are parts of the local right, and these people indeed wanted to stop all interactions with North Korea. However, they were a minority. Nonetheless, this support and this strange belief that North Korea is going to collapse very soon definitely influenced the policy. I would not say that it's going to explode, because North Korea doesn't want a war, South Korea doesn't want a war - neither side wants any serious confrontation. They are very cautions. However, relations are, indeed, tense. Some pretty unhappy and dangerous incidents can indeed happen.

SS: So when the current president is out of the office, will relations between North and South improve - or is the damage already done?

AL: There's no such a thing as a 'permanent damage' when it comes to relations between South and North Korea. Both sides, and especially North Korea, are very pragmatic and, I would say, opportunistic - so everything is going to be forgotten if it pays to forget it. Therefore, I would say, under the next government relations are likely to change. However, what is the most important variable is - who is going to run the next government? If the local nationalist left forces take over, which now seems increasingly likely, it will be a sort of detente, a sort of warming of relations, some trade, some exchanges, and actually a lot of money sent to North Korea, taken from the South Korean budget and sent to North Korea as aid.

SS: Amid reports that North Korea could mark U.S. election day with a rocket launch, South Korean forces were put on high alert. With the president in such a disarray domestically, how serious is her grip on the situation?

AL: All these high alerts are purely symbolic actions. As I have said, neither side wants military confrontation, both side understand it perfectly well, so we should not overestimate this bellicose rhetoric which is sometimes produced by Seoul and much more frequently by Pyongyang. It's just a show. There's no reason to worry that something serious is going to happen. Not now, at least, not in near future.

SS: There are 30 thousand American troops in South Korea – the American president-elect has  threatened to withdraw them - unless Seoul paid more for their presence. Is the American military alliance with South Korea in jeopardy?

AL:Sort of, and this is what worries both sides of the politics. Because, on paper, the South Korean left is sort of sceptical about the alliance, but really even the left nationalist opposition would strongly prefer American forces to stay, above all, because otherwise, South Korea would have to spend much more money on its armed forces. Therefore, it's one of many reasons why the South Korean political class was shocked when they learned about the victory of Donald Trump. Not the major reason, but one of many reasons.

SS: Trump has also suggested South Korea and Japan as well should protect themselves with nuclear weapons and there’s a group of supporters of that idea in the South - so are North Koreans right to pursue a nuclear deterrent?

AL: Well, there are many people who love to talk about it, because, you know, people love to talk tough. They want to look serious and threatening and there are people who believe that nuclear South Korea is possible, there are people who are just trying to use this opportunity to raise their profiles and everything. However, in the current situation I don't see this happening. Technically, it's easy, it's possible, South Korea has all necessary technology, it can be done in a couple of years, maybe a bit more but not much more. Policy-wise it's highly risky - not at least because South Korea greatly depends on  international trade and any kind of international sanctions, even very mild, are going to create serious trouble for a country which actually lives by selling what it produces. On top of that, nuclear Japan is seen by South Korea as a great threat, because relations between Japan and South Korea are not very good to put it mildly. So I don't see this actually happening.

SS: Is there an actual danger of North Korea being attacked by the U.S. or the South?

AL: Under Donald Trump - there is, I would say, because previous line was a presumption that any kind of conflict is going to be very expensive and it will, essentially, destroy South Korea. It's still the position of South Korea. As I have said, neither side wants war. North Korea is perfectly aware that it has no chances to win a war. South Korea knows that it probably will win a war but at a completely unacceptable cost and will be left with a ruined country, which will lose any kind of international significance. Therefore, neither side wants a war. But now we have a variable - Donald Trump, and there's indeed a small but real probability that Americans will consider a precision attack against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities, especially when North Koreans develop missiles capable of striking continental United States, and this is likely to happen within the next few years. Probability should not be overestimated, it's real, but very small - but real.

SS: So you're saying sanctions haven't worked - if not sanctions, what can make North Korea abandon its plans to obtain nuclear weapons?

AL: Nothing. North Korea is nuclear and will remain nuclear for the foreseeable future, as long as the Kim family stays in power, maybe longer.

SS: Well, Director of U.S. National Intelligence James Clapper agrees with you  - he said that getting North Korea to give up its nukes is a lost cause - calling it their ‘ticket to survival’. So what is America going to do, if even its intelligence professionals know Pyongyang won’t give up, is it going to continue the policy it has now?

AL: They will try other policies. The policies they have now haven't worked, other policies will not work either. The same is applicable not only to the U.S. but to any other country - China, Russia, South Korea, Japan - name it. Nothing is going to work. In the long run, the only hope is gradual social change in North Korea, so one day it will be a completely different country and so it will give up nuclear weapons. Of course, we should never forget that there are real chances of domestic instability inside North Korea, a kind of revolution against the Kim family is not likely but not impossible. However, on balance, I would say that North Korea is nuclear and is likely to stay nuclear.

SS: Trump has said he might negotiate directly with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - could that actually move the situation out of its dead-end ?

AL: No. It's not going to move the situation anywhere. He's most welcome to negotiate and from where I sit I would consider it a good move. But, what does he want to talk about? About denuclearisation? Not going to happen. Anything else - not acceptable for the United States. He probably doesn't understand it, but he will learn it in due time.

SS: Like you talked about, the regime in North Korea is surely not going to last forever - can it melt away peacefully and morph into something softer?

AL: The current North Korean leadership is quietly implementing a really successful policy of economic reforms, very similar to what China did under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Generally speaking, reforms are working. Living standards are increasing, there's a modest but real economic growth. The current government is very popular. Kim Jong Un is far more popular than his father, late Kim Jong-il. So all this gives some hope that North Korea will follow Chinese model. Of course, it's going to remain very tightly controlled, very repressive, because Kim Jong Un understands: if he's soft on the population, it will be very difficult to control his people, so he is likely to be quite tough. Nonetheless, there are some positive changes. Is it enough to prevent regime collapse? I don't know. We have to keep in mind that when Korea was divided, North Korea was actually seriously more affluent than South Korea. Now South Korean per capita income is at least 15 times higher than per capita income in North Korea, and this fact itself is hugely destabilising if common North Koreans will learn about it. So, it's not a stable place, but right now, for the time being, it looks stable and the government policy seemingly increases chances of survival, or at least, gradual evolution, which is very good, because otherwise it will be a bloody messy disaster.

SS: Say Korean reunification happens -  If South Korea ends up consuming the North, where’s the guarantee it will just throw away what Pyongyang has already achieved in terms of nuclear weapons?

AL: Well, I don't see such guarantees, and I believe that have I been a South Korean president, in case we have such a development, I would try to keep it. Will it be possible - it's a big question, and, if we have unification, it will be not only political or military, but also an economic disaster, above all, for South Korea, because South Korea will have to pay tremendous amount of money to repair, to recover, to restore North Korean economy and North Korean society. It's very expensive, and they will need money, they will need good relations with the outside world. Therefore, it's highly unlikely that they will be able to afford to play nuclear games.

SS: Alright, professor, thank you very much for this interesting insight into the world of the North and South Korea. We were talking to Andrei Lankov, the leading scholar in Korean studies, professor in Seoul's Kookmin university. We were talking about the latest bizarre political scandal in South Korea and what it means for the country's relations with its northern neighbor. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.