Explainer: South Korea election

Foundation researcher Rebecca Townsend looks at the upcoming snap election in South Korea and the scandal that triggered it. 

In December 2016, Park Geun-hye became the first elected South Korean president to be removed from office, after she became embroiled in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.

Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of her impeachment – a decision upheld by the Constitutional Court in March.

Election fever is now under way in the country, which will head to the polls on 9 May. Here are five background facts about the scandal and snap election.

1. The scandal

Former South Korean president Park Geun Hye was impeached on 9 December 2016

At the heart of the graft scandal is 65-year-old Park’s relationship with family friend Choi Soon-sil.

The two women became acquainted in the 70s through the friendship of their fathers. Park's military dictator father, Park Chung-hee, was South Korea's third president. His confidante, Choi Tae-min, was the leader of a pseudo-Christian cult.

In October last year, an investigation by a TV network uncovered evidence that Park, who was elected in 2013, had been consulting Choi on affairs of state.

Broadcaster JTBC, which obtained a tablet belonging to Choi, reported she had received confidential documents, edited some presidential speeches, and advised Park on matters such as North Korean policy. 

Authorities accused Choi of exploiting her friendship with Park to extort almost US$70 million (NZ$1.01 billion) from family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, such as Samsung and Hyundai. 

Choi also allegedly schemed to secure her daughter a spot in the prestigious Ewha Womans University, despite the teenager's poor grades. Public backlash to the corruption allegations prompted the university's president to step down.

Choi was formally charged on 20 November for interfering with state affairs and coercing corporations into donating large amounts of money to businesses and foundations she controlled.

2. The apology

South Koreans staged mass protests across the country after the scandal broke out

After the scandal came to light, South Koreans staged mass protests across the country calling for Park's resignation, with crowd sizes reaching a record 2 million.

Park launched a national apology in a televised speech on 25 October, admitting to sharing "certain documents" with a close friend.

She claimed full responsibility for the scandal, which she called a "mistake". 

"I deeply apologise to the nation for causing this disappointment and distress," said Park, the country's first elected woman president. "I blame myself for everything."

Park was arrested in March. She faces 18 criminal counts, including 11 of abuse of power, five of bribery and one of leaking government secrets. 

Park faces more than 10 years in prison if convicted.

3. The fallout

The scandal has impacted many individuals who dealt with Choi and Park.

Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun and a former presidential chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, were arrested on suspicion of perjury and abuse of power. Both are accused of being involved in the creation of an arts "blacklist", which excluded artists and writers critical of Park from government support programmes.

Authorities have also arrested the president of Ewha Womans University, as well as numerous members of staff and faculty.

Lee Jae-yong, the vice-chairman and heir of Samsung Electronics, was arrested on 17 February on suspicion of bribery, embezzlement and perjury, days after he was grilled in a 22-hour probe.

Lee is accused of giving donations amounting to about US$36 million (NZ$54 million) to organisations linked to Choi.

4. The front-runners

Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-Soo

Two liberal-leaning politicians are leading the polls.

Opinion surveys indicate strong support for Moon Jae-in, 64, a nominee from the left-leaning Democratic Party. Ahn Cheol-soo, 55, from the centre-left People’s Party, is his closest rival.

Moon, a former human rights lawyer and the son of North Korean refugees, ran against Park in the 2012 election. Ahn is a former doctor and software entrepreneur who ran as an independent in 2012.

Global political risk consultancy Eurasia Group has put the odds of a Moon victory at 80 percent, effectively all but crowning him as a leader in waiting.

Moon and Ahn both promise greater government transparency as well as chaebol reforms. However, both have different views on North Korea and the United States. 

Moon advocates a more diplomatic approach to North Korea and has a measured stance on US relations. Ahn favours the deployment of the American anti-missile THAAD system and strong US ties.

5. The NZ numbers 

Korean voter in New Zealand, April 2017

Overseas voting for South Koreans began on 25 April in Auckland. 

According to the last census, about 30,000 people of Korean descent reside in New Zealand. Some 9 in 10 were born overseas, and 72.8 percent live in the Auckland region.

A total of 3,094 voters, or 76 percent of registered voters, turned out at the Auckland and Wellington polling stations. 

Overseas voting closed on 30 April.

Read more:

Park's impeachment exposes generational divisions

5 May 2017