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Post-Impeachment Scenarios Split South Korea

14 Mar 2017
By Associate Professor Hyung-a Kim

Friday’s court ruling to remove South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office created history and divided the country. The country has been left without a leader just as tensions on the peninsula are building. What will come next?

In a nationally televised decision at 11am Seoul time last Friday 10 March, eight judges of South Korea’s Constitutional Court 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. She 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. 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. Every weekend since the initial candlelight vigil in late October 2016, both groups have held public rallies—with either candles or national flags—only tens of meters apart from one another in central Seoul.

The feelings of conflict and confrontation between the two groups were so intense that both publicly declared they would not accept the Constitutional Court’s decision if it went against their position. Amid the ideological and generational divide between the pro-impeachment younger generation progressives and anti-impeachment older generation conservatives, Park’s ruling Saenuri Party split into the relatively reformist Bareun Party and the Liberty Korea Party (LKP), 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 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.”

In an editorial on 11 March, the progressive newspaper, Hankyoreh Sinmun applauded the ruling as the “victory of the citizens’ revolution”. The paper said that through their months-long candlelit vigils, the citizens had ultimately brought about the ruling that  confirmed 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 has helped the frontrunner, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea to cement his lead. A former human rights lawyer and former chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, 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 with 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.

Constitutional reform?

Whoever becomes president, revision of the constitution to end the current 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. 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 the end of the Park era.

On 11 March the conservative daily, Choson Ilbo, editorialised that if the next president is found to have deceived the nation by breaking their own promise of constitutional reform, the Korean people should 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”. He meant not only Park’s impeachment but also the investigation and prosecution of Choi Soon-sil’s corruption allegations that involve 53 heads of large chaebols or family-owned conglomerates—including Samsung Electronics. They 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 anti-graft laws, is a key election promise of leading presidential candidates, including Moon.

As the majority of angry South Koreans regard the chaebols as ‘public enemies’, the bribery case against Lee Jae-yong of Samsung could become a test case for the next president’s political leadership and will to execute chaebol reform once and for all.

Missile manoeuvres

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.

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 Jae-in among them.

Moreover, the Korea-China conflict over the THAAD deployment hit a new crisis point last week. 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—is inflicting serious damage on an already sluggish Korean economy. The North–South Korean relationship under a new president, however, might become more conciliatory, 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. They 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 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.

Park’s return to her own home in southern Seoul on Sunday evening appears to be far from an ending to this extraordinary saga. Her refusal to make any comment on the ruling— opting instead to release a statement that reads, “I believe that the truth will be revealed without fail, although it will take time”—signals a long and arduous political journey, not only for herself but for the Korean people.

Hyung-a Kim is associate professor of Korean Politics at the Korea Institute within the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific. Her research looks at contemporary politics of the Korean peninsula with particular focus on the role of state, democratic development and socio-cultural movements.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.