Clinton and Park Geun-hyeThere is no reason to believe that two women holding or aspiring to high office would necessarily have a lot in common simply as a result of being women. Yet the scandals and apparent scandals in which President Park and Secretary Clinton are embroiled naturally invite comparison. Indeed, some of the lines of inquiry — relationships with advisers, emails and security, relations with the private sector and corruption — appear cut from the same cloth.
Yet from what we know to date, the circumstances in the two countries could not be more different. While Hillary Clinton is poised to win the presidency in the U.S., President Park’s challenges have put her tenure in office at risk.
To start with relations with advisers, Clinton has always been what Americans call a “policy wonk.” Like her husband, she is deeply devoted to the fine points of public policy. She absorbs information like a sponge, but generally has clear views. No one questions if she is working for someone else.
Policy has not been President Park’s strong suit, although she has advanced ideas on a range of issues from innovation to presidential term limits. But the shocking feature of the Korean scandals are the appearance that the president could be so strongly under the sway of a single individual, and one of such dubious political and policy knowledge.
The issue of access to classified material looks more similar between the two cases. Both Clinton and Park appear to have been careless with classified materials.
Yet again, the differences are more striking than the similarities. In Clinton’s case, the few classified emails that have been found were clearly inadvertent, the result of her decision to maintain a separate server. In Park’s case, it appears that a variety of material was purposefully shared with Ms. Choi, and that Choi exercised undue policy influence as a result. Such influence may even have extended to key national security issues, such as the President’s Dresden speech.
Foundations have also played an important role in the political lives of both women, and here again the differences are subtle but significant. The Clinton Foundation dates to 1997, and was a vehicle for Bill Clinton to leverage his fame to an array of social purposes.
The foundation was certainly a vehicle for him, but it homed in on issues of poverty and economic development, with a focus on public health in particular.
The charges — and evidence — with respect to conflicts of interest at the Clinton Foundation are surprisingly vague. Despite the release of hundreds of emails relating to the Foundation while Secretary Clinton was in office, critics have been hard-pressed to find any evidence of policy quid-pro-quos or even access on the part of donors. To be sure, the foundation clearly used access to elicit donations. But recall that the access that has been demonstrated was largely to an out-of-office president, not to Secretary Clinton in her official role.
By contrast, the official purpose of the Mi-R and K-Sport Foundations — while laudable in principle — seemed vague and ill-defined at the outset. It is fine to seek corporate support for Korea’s culture, art and sports. But the speed with which the foundations were set up has raised questions about whether they ever had serious substantive goals or were designed from the start as just shells.
The Korean press and prosecutors have focused largely on the question of direct embezzlement of funds by Choi. However, the equally damning question is what the companies thought they were getting by contributing to foundations set up at the request of a sitting president. Korean chaebol have been generous with their money, but it is hard to rule out two other possibilities: that the funds were extorted or — equally troubling — they were given in anticipation of quid pro quos. Only thorough investigation will reveal what the money was designed to achieve, but we have evidence that even the strongest groups saw money channeled into highly dubious purposes.
Secretary Clinton’s troubles are far from over, and are likely to extend into her presidency. The deep political polarization in the country and the distaste for the Clintons are likely to generate ongoing efforts to discredit her, perhaps even through Congressional inquiries.
Clinton is by no means blameless. The use of a private email server was an act of hubris. And her $100,000-plus speeches to Wall Street reveal a politician willing to take quite different positions in front of industry than those she adopted in public.
But President Park’s problems seem far worse, and speak to the question of judgment in a more profound way. As the campaign has evolved, Secretary Clinton’s competence with respect to policy has been on ample display. You may disagree with her proposals, but it is clear she has a 10-point plan for everything, from ISIS to health care.
In President Park’s case the Choi scandal raises questions of how policy has been made in her administration, an issue that insiders have noted to me repeatedly since her inauguration. And appearances of conflict of interest are very different than outright corruption and embezzlement of funds, even if on the part of associates. The fact that National Assembly lawmakers from the ruling party are calling for a thorough investigation does not simply reflect self-interest. It reflects the sheer scope — and growing clarity — of the abuses in which Ms. Choi has been involved.
*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego.