South Korea prepares for new presidential elections in 60 days—and the new president will face immediate pressing issues, writes Hyung-A Kim
At 11am Seoul time last Friday (10 March), eight judges of South Korea’s Constitutional Court, in a nationally televised decision, ruled unanimously to remove President Park Geun-hye from office on 13 charges.
‘Her violations of the law have betrayed the public trust, and for the sake of protecting the Constitution they are too serious to be tolerated,’ said acting chief justice, Lee Jung-mi, who concluded that the ‘interest of guarding the Constitution by firing her is judged to be overwhelmingly great’.
Park is the first democratically elected South Korean president to be ousted by impeachment. In 2004, the late President Roh Moo-hyun (2003–07) was impeached by the National Assembly on charges of interfering with an election and of corruption among his associates, but the Constitutional Court overturned the decision and Roh was reinstated.
Subsequently, Roh’s political prospects changed almost overnight following an electorate backlash against his impeachment, and his Progressive Uri Party won a majority in the National Assembly elections in April 2004. Park’s impeachment, however, has divided the country into pro- and anti-impeachment groups, holding public rallies with either candles or national flags in central Seoul only tens of meters apart from one another every weekend since the initial candlelight vigil in late October 2016.
The feelings of conflict and confrontation between the two groups have been so intense that both publicly declared not to accept the Constitutional Court’s decision if it went against their position. Amid this ideological and generational divide between the pro-impeachment younger generation progressives and anti-impeachment older generation conservatives, Park’s ruling Saenuri Party has split into the relatively reformist Bareun Party and the Liberty Korea Party comprising the remaining Saenuri members.
Two days after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, Park had offered no message of concession. Instead, her lawyer publicly condemned the ruling as biased, while thousands of Park’s angry supporters called for the repeal of her impeachment. In stark contrast, Kwon Seong-dong, the chairman of the parliamentary legislation and judiciary committee applauded the court’s ruling, saying he believed it ‘confirmed the rule of law and the people’s sovereignty, which embodies [the principle] that every person, even the president, is equal before the law. The owners of the country are the people, and all power comes from the people’.
The progressive newspaper, Hankyoreh Sinmn (11 March), applauded the ruling as the ‘victory of the citizens’ revolution’ who, through their months-long candlelight vigils, ultimately brought about the ruling to confirm the ‘rule of law and democratic values’.
So, what will be the most likely scenario from here? The country must hold a presidential election within 60 days—likely on 9 May. Park’s impeachment, ironically, has helped the frontrunner, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea, cement his lead. A former human rights lawyer and former chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009 amid an investigation into graft allegations, Moon was defeated by Park Guen-hye in the 2012 presidential election.
Just as Park rode to power on conservative nostalgia for her father, former president Park Chung Hee, Moon might well do the same this time—but on progressive nostalgia for Roh, loosely known as the Roh Moo-hyun phenomenon. This does not necessarily mean that Moon demonstrates effective political leadership or clear plans to mend the ideological division between progressives and conservatives. In terms of forging national reconciliation, especially through long-overdue structural reform, he has yet to prove his governing credentials.
That said, the revision of the Constitution to end the five-year, single-term presidential system that, since its promulgation in 1987, has allowed every president the unbridled power of a so-called imperial presidency, appears to be likely, whoever becomes president. All presidential hopefuls have already promised to resolve this matter, mainly because the majority of Koreans, especially the progressives, equate Park’s impeachment with the end of the outdated 1987 constitutional system, and of the Park era.
If the next president is found to have deceived the nation by breaking their own promise of constitutional reform, the conservative daily, Choson Ilbo, has urged (11 March) the Korean people to instigate another ‘political impeachment’.
Moon Jae-in went further by promising that ‘we need to meet the public needs reflected in the candlelight rallies first’ (Korea Times, 19 December 2016). By this he meant not only Park’s impeachment, but also the investigation and prosecution of the corruption allegations against Choi Soon-sil, who has been accused of masterminding governmental policy and decision-making during Park’s administration. The allegations involve 53 heads of large chaebols, family-owned conglomerates—including Samsung vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong—who have allegedly provided a total of KRW77.4 billion (AU$8.9 billion) in funding for two sports and cultural foundations controlled by Choi.
The issue of chaebol reform, especially to root out Korea’s entrenched political–chaebol corruption by introducing tougher antigraft laws, is another likely post-impeachment scenario which has also been advocated by leading presidential candidates, including Moon, as their key election promise.
As the majority of angry South Koreans regard the chaebols as ‘public enemies’, the bribery case against Lee Jae-yong involving KRW43.3 billion (AU$4.9 billion) in kickbacks allegedly provided to Choi could become a test case for the next president’s political leadership and will to execute chaebol reform once and for all.
The most challenging and yet inescapable post-impeachment scenario which the next president will need to face, however, is change in the Korea–US relationship, especially concerning the deployment of the US-made missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
The North–South Korean relationship under a new president might change significantly into a more conciliatory mode with the North, unlike Park and her predecessor’s hardcore approach
Under Park, the THAAD system, which aimed to counter the military threat from North Korea, was to be operational in South Korea by the end of 2017. But this plan may not necessarily be continued without serious renegotiation at best, because many South Koreans, especially the progressives, oppose the THAAD deployment, Moon Jai-in among them.
Moreover, the Korea–China conflict over the THAAD deployment hit a new crisis point on Wednesday when the United States and South Korea rejected China’s proposal that the two countries halt their expansive joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for North Korea suspending its nuclear and ballistic missile development.
Economically, China’s retaliation against Korean business, from blocking K-pop, tourism and online video games, to expelling dozens of Korean Christian missionaries working in China, inflicts serious damage on an already sluggish Korean economy. The North–South Korean relationship under a new president, however, might change significantly into a more conciliatory mode with the North, unlike Park and her predecessor’s hardcore approach.
According to Dong-A Daily, the special prosecutors are in a rush to investigate Park Guen-hye, now an ordinary citizen, and plan to end their investigation and indictment by early next month at the latest to prevent any possible impact on the coming presidential election.
Unlike her star-like rise to the top as Park Chung Hee’s daughter and as South Korea’s first female leader, Park Guen-hye’s departure is marred by disgrace, leaving her cult-like followers angry and in despair, and the nation turned upside down.
Her ultimate departure appears to be far from ending this extraordinary saga. Park’s refusal to make any comment on the ruling, but to release a statement on her stance that she believes ‘the truth will be revealed without fail, albeit it will take time’, implicitly signals a long and arduous political journey, not only for herself but for the Korean people, for the forthcoming presidential election and perhaps even long after that.
Mass protest against President Park Geun-hye in Daegu, 3 December 2016. Her impeachment and removal from office ‘confirmed the rule of law and the people’s sovereignty’. Photo: Wikimedia Commons