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Student witnesses Korean presidential scandal as it unfolds

While citizens of the United States contend with a turbulent and divisive president election season, South Korea is also shrouded in political scandal that junior Jason Mascelli has witnessed firsthand.

Mascelli, a global studies major and asian studies minor, is currently abroad at Korea University in Seoul through the affiliate program International Studies Abroad. The way he characterized the political climate, “It’s almost like something out of a movie.”

Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president and daughter of former president Park Chung-hee, has been accused of consulting with a personal acquaintance regarding official government matters. She has purportedly taken advice from Choi Soon-sil, a woman she has known for decades. Investigations into their relationship began in late October.

Soon-sil has no security clearance or position in the government, yet she has reportedly counseled Park countless times. Choi is believed to have edited the landmark speech that Park delivered in 2014 which addressed hopes for reunification with North Korea. JTBC, a Korean cable network, reportedly found a tablet computer belonging to Choi with the text of speeches that Park had yet to deliver.

Mascelli notes that his individual daily experiences have not been significantly affected by the political climate. His routine includes walking to campus, taking classes and spending time with fellow students from all over the world. They often venture into the city districts during the weekends to fully experience local culture. While he has not spoken to Koreans directly about these issues, partially due to a language barrier, Mascelli said that whenever the scandal is covered on the news, residents become visibly agitated.

“Locals are definitely very invested in it… so much that they want the president to step down,” he said.

On Oct. 25, Park publicly acknowledged and apologized for her close relationship with Choi, saying that she edited some of her speeches and gave her public relations pointers. Park directed many of her top aides, who have reportedly had little impact on her governance compared to Choi, to resign at once. On Nov. 4, her approval rating dropped to an all-time low of five percent.

Thousands have gathered on the streets in Seoul in protest amid calls for her resignation or impeachment. Mascelli has observed peaceful protests in the area, especially closer to political districts. While it has not impacted his day-to-day activities at KU, he witnessed a peaceful yet very serious protest on the campus within the past week.

Allegedly, Choi also created a secret group of aides called “the eight fairies” that also act as unofficial advisors. Officials are also investigating claims that Choi has gradually embezzled funds from the Federation of Korean Industries, a large business lobby. Finally, some believe that Choi’s daughter was given preferential treatment when she applied to Ewha Womens University.

Despite these controversies, Mascelli has experienced a very different culture and educational system during his time in Seoul. KU has roughly 40,000 students, almost quadruple the amount at UMBC. He described the system as more focused on memorization of material than on empirical discussion, as is customary in the United States. Mascelli attributes his interest in Korean culture partially to the number of Korean students he has met during his studies at UMBC.

“I am definitely now knowledgeable of another culture very different from my own, which I think just makes me a more well rounded person,” said Mascelli. “My time here really made me appreciate my decision and ability to experience such an amazing opportunity, and I encourage everyone with the ability to do the same to absolutely do it.