The World Today for October 31, 2016


Of Presidents, Protests and Rasputin

South Korea seems to be succumbing to the same crisis of confidence that is undermining other democracies around the world.

On Sunday, Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, returned to the country from Europe to answer allegations that she used her “Rasputin-like” influence over Park to squeeze multinational giants Samsung and Hyundai for $70 million of donations to two of her nonprofit foundations.

Choi has been a close friend of Park for 40 years, while Choi’s father, a minor cult leader, was a mentor to the president years ago. The Guardian reported that she exercises “Rasputin-like” control over Park, allegedly editing the president’s speeches, gaining access to confidential documents and formulating key foreign and defense policies.

On Saturday, as demonstrators called for Park’s resignation and the president reshuffled her cabinet to quell those demands. Prosecutors took the extraordinary step of demanding entry to the Blue House, the president’s executive mansion in Seoul, to search for criminal evidence. Park didn’t let them enter. They returned on Sunday and were again refused entry.

The New York Times noted that South Koreans are proud of their affluent country’s accomplishments following the split between the communist North and Western-oriented South following the end of the Korean War in 1953.

President Park is undermining that pride, some say.

Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a military strongman who ruled South Korea until he was assassinated in 1979. He helped put South Korea on a path to economic dynamism that in turn led to a democracy movement that brought an end to authoritarian rule in the late 1980s.

Now Park is South Korea’s third democratically elected president in a row who has been tarred by scandal.

The administration of Park’s unpopular predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, was wracked by corruption allegations. The previous president, Roh Moo-hyun, was impeached and temporarily removed from office before the country’s top court reinstated him.

Park’s critics contend she must step down to save the advancements that South Koreans secured 30 years ago.

“Park has lost her authority as president and showed she doesn’t have the basic qualities to govern a country,” said Seongnam Mayor Jae-myung Lee, an opposition member, according to CBS. “She must step down.”

Through her attorney, Choi has apologized for the brouhaha.

“She is deeply remorseful that she had caused frustration and despondency among the public,” the lawyer told The Guardian on Sunday.

But damage has been done.

In the same way the US presidential election has exposed deep rifts and dissatisfaction with American democracy, the Brexit vote has illustrated intense anti-EU feelings in Britain and the success of the far-right in Europe has revealed the fecklessness of that continent’s elites, the Choi scandal has similarly eroded South Koreans’ faith in their government.

“With the Choi scandal, everything we have built appears to be collapsing,” a protester told the Korea Times on Saturday. “It’s so embarrassing and shameful.”


A Vote for Women

The world was watching Iceland’s elections to see if the anti-establishment Pirate Party would take power. But there was another surprise in the making over the weekend.

While the Pirate Party took second place Saturday, causing the country’s center-right prime minister to resign, women candidates made an even bigger impact – capturing more of the vote than any single party, NPR reported.

Across all political parties, women won 30 out of Iceland’s 63 parliamentary seats, giving Iceland “the most equal parliament in the world” without a quota system, according to the country’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

In comparison, the conservative Independence Party won 21 seats, a gain of 19 over the previous poll. The Pirate Party came in second with 10 seats. And Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson’s center-right Progressive Party won just 8 seats, down from 19 in the last election.

Elsewhere, women make up around 20 percent of the US Congress and 41 percent of legislatures across various Nordic countries, NPR said.

The Long Road

Pesky Wallonia allowed a free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union to go through after all.

After a promise to protect its farmers from heightened competition, Wallonia withdrew its veto on Friday, allowing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to zip off to Brussels to sign the so-called Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) on Sunday, according to the Guardian.

The last-minute reprieve offers a ray of hope to Britain, which has grown increasingly fearful about the complexities of inking a post-Brexit trade pact with the 28-member EU during the wrangling. The deal also reduces Canada’s reliance on the US and gives the EU its first trade pact with a G-7 economy following the Brexit vote – a boost to the body’s credibility.

On the other hand, the fact that CETA took seven years to push through, and even then was nearly derailed at the last minute by one of its tiniest stakeholders, will prevent confidence from soaring too high.

Turkey’s ‘Direct Coup’

Turkey shuttered more than a dozen additional news outlets and fired some 10,000 more people from jobs in the education, health and justice ministries in an extension of the crackdown that started after a botched coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdogan in July, Reuters reported.

More than 100,000 people had already been fired or suspended and 37,000 had been arrested as part of the crackdown, which is ostensibly aimed at purging people suspected to be linked to terrorist organizations and US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen – whom the government blames for the coup attempt.

The government also formally arrested two Kurdish mayors who had been previously detained on charges of belonging to a terrorist organization and took control of choosing rectors at the country’s universities. Earlier, police used rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of people protesting the arrests.

“What the government and Erdogan are doing right now is a direct coup against the rule of law and democracy,” said a prominent opposition leader.


Birds of a Feather

They say you are what you eat – and for the yellow-shafted northern flicker, a woodpecker that calls eastern North America home, that old adage has proven incredibly apt.

The woodpecker gets its name from the thin yellow vein that courses through the center of its feathers, but bird watchers noticed over several decades that some birds’ yellow plumage had inexplicably turned red.

At first, scientists thought these yellow woodpeckers were interbreeding with their red-tinged cousins out West.

But a new study published in The Auk makes the case that it’s all due to a change in diet: The birds were eating red honeysuckle berries that changed their feathers to a bright shade of crimson.

“This answers a really important question,” study leader Jocelyn Hudon, an ornithologist at the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada, told National Geographic. “Colors are an important signal in birds, so a change in color can have huge impacts,” especially when it comes to mating, she added.

It’s also another example of how invasive species can inadvertently affect indigenous wildlife, said National Geographic. Honeysuckle bushes were originally imported from Europe and Asia by horticulturalists in the 1800s for landscaping and bird habitats – not as a way to paint the towns’ birds red.

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