On March 10, 2017, South Korea’s Constitutional Court formally ended the rule of impeached President Park Geun-hye. When information was revealed about her and confidante’s involvement in an explosive political scandal resulting in street protests by millions, the Parliament had impeached her on 9 December 2016. The verdict by an eight-judge bench was unanimous. The impeachment marked her dramatic fall from grace to be South Korea’s first woman president and the first democratically elected leader, and daughter of Cold War military dictator Park Chung-hee, to be ousted from office since democracy was established in the country in the late 1980s. As per the Constitution, a successor has to be elected within the next 60 days. In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun was too ousted by the legislature but was reinstated by the court two months later.
The timing of the ruling too was significant. March 10 was the last day of Justice Lee Jung-mi. During the impeachment process, the terms of judges cannot be extended and no new judge can be appointed. The Constitution of the country requires at least six justices concur for an impeachment motion to be upheld. Chief Justice Park Han-chul was forced to step down in January when his term ended. The court was therefore keen to make its ruling as the nine-member body would have been reduced to seven justices.
Following the court ruling, Park will be making a tragic and untimely departure from the Blue House for the second time in her life. Park has a traumatic past. For long, she was considered a kind of princess figure in South Korea. While she was in college in 1979, her mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, shot by a North Korean sympathizer. She effectively became South Korea’s first lady at 22, and during this time became close to Choi Tae-min, the founder of a religious cult that incorporated elements of Christianity and Buddhism. He would “deliver messages” to Park from her dead mother, according to local gossip. Choi was seen by some as a “Korean Rasputin”.
Park became close to Choi’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, and their friendship continued after both their fathers died. When Park’s father Park Chung-hee was killed in 1979 by his own spy chief, she and her two siblings left the presidential compound. For almost two decades, she disappeared from public view when she returned to the Blue House as the President. This time, she would again move out from the Blue House for a second time and could end up in jail. North Korea’s KCNA news agency wasted little time labelling Park a “criminal”.
What was the corruption scandal that undid Park from office? She was involved in a sprawling corruption and influence-peddling scandal centred on her secret confidante Choi Soon-sil who is now on trial for using her ties with Park to force local firms to “donate” nearly $70 million to non-profit foundations which she controlled. It emerged that Park allowed Choi to handle a wide range of state affairs, including senior nominations. Park allowed Choi to exercise improper influence over policy decisions and force companies to donate tens of millions of dollars to two foundations under Choi’s control. The fact that she was the daughter of a religious cult leader also added to the drama of the scandal. Park’s impeachment in December 2016 was on 13 separate grounds and the final decision on whether to uphold or overturn the impeachment rested with the court. Following the court ruling, Park will lose most post presidency benefits and privileges including a generous pension, health care and administrative support.
The anti-Park protesters celebrated the impeachment ruling. The ruling sparked protests from hundreds of her supporters, resulting in clashes with the police and death of two. But the overwhelming percentage of people felt that justice was done and rejoiced at Park’s ouster. A recent poll showed more than 79 per cent supported her impeachment.
What were the main conclusions the court arrived at? The main charges against Park were (a) breach of democracy – handing over secret documents relating to affairs of the state to Choi between 2013 and 2016, thereby impairing the principle of representative democracy and the rule of law, (b) abuse of power – concealing the presence of Choi and cracking down on journalists or lawmakers who tried to disclose Choi’s presence and influence, thereby “rendering the system of checks and balances ineffective”, (c) violation of property rights – forcing a number of top firms, including Samsung and Lotte, to donate a large amount of money to the Choi-controlled foundations, besides interfering with management decisions at firms including Hyundai and KT, a major wireless operator, to force them to award lucrative contracts to firms controlled by Choi, (d) assault on press freedom – threat of tax probe and legal action against the Segye Ilbo newspaper after it reported on alleged interference in state affairs by Choi’s then husband, forcing the daily’s president to step down; and (e) violation of citizen’s rights – she stayed on in the Blue House Presidential Palace not bothering to take immediate remedial measures when the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014, killing more than 300 people, mostly school children.
The corruption scandal had thrown South Korea into political turmoil. This incident also coincided with resurgence in North Korea’s nuclear program and an escalation in regional tensions over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery anti-missile system being deployed in south of Seoul. The ruling is also a demonstration of the success of South Korea’s young democracy since it was first established in the late 1980s when a popular will manifested by peaceful protests by millions successfully unseated a President from office for her misdeeds. The fact that political parties from different spectrum accepted without dissent the court’s verdict also spoke a lot about how political institutions have matured in South Korea. It also demonstrated that peoples are the ultimate arbiter of the country’s future, a testimony to how democracy has matured in South Korea.
Park was Korea’s first female President and the daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee. Her father’ legacy had contributed to her sweeping electoral victory in 2012.
In the aftermath of her downfall, political power is expected to shift in the direction of the liberal opposition. One defining development is likely to be revisiting South Korea’s policy towards North Korea, which might see more engagement with a view to defuse the escalating tension in recent times. Having been impeached, Park is no longer immune from prosecution. The de facto leader of Samsung Lee Jae-yong, accused of bribing Park in return for business favours, is already behind bars. Lee and other company officials have been indicted for donating $37.19 million to the Choi-run foundations in exchange for government help on an important merger for the company.
At a parliamentary hearing in December, Lee admitted that Samsung had given a $900,000 horse to Choi’s daughter, an Olympic equestrian hopeful. If convicted, Lee could face up to 20 years in prison. A number of presidential aides also could face similar charges and prison terms for their roles in the influence peddling scandal.
It is interesting to observe how peaceful demonstrations that swelled in 2016 and toppled the corrupt government of Park was the first since the bloody protests in 1987 helped end military dictatorship, a sign of how democracy has matured in South Korea.
The year 2016 saw one of the largest civil movements in South Korea’s history when a President was brought down following one of the country’s biggest scandals ever. As details of the scandal emerged, the size of the rallies swelled and Park’s approval rating plummeted to the low single digits in no time. The memories of 1987 democracy movement were reignited again. The public upsurge encouraged the opposition to go ahead with the impeachment vote in the parliament.
Popular protests in South Korea against misdeeds by a ruler are nothing new. South Korea is often called the “Republic of Demonstrators”. For example, even before the 1987 demonstrations against the dictatorial system, in 1960 protestors fought bloody street battles with armed police and forced Syngman Rhee, the country’s founding and authoritarian president, to resign and flee to Hawaii and to be replaced by Park’s father Park Chung-hee. Park Chung-hee, the military dictator, resorted to martial law, torture, and execution to suppress his critics and political opponents, who finally fell to pro-democracy protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Even his successor Chun Doo-hwan faced the public’s wrath in the 1980s because of similar policy.
There were indirect ripple effects that Park’s scandalous activities manifesting in the country’s economy. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit termed South Korea in 2015 in its annual reports a “flawed democracy” and not a “full democracy” which was an indictment on the Park government. The International Monetary Fund ranked South Korea as the worst of the 22 countries in the Asia-Pacific region in terms of income inequality. Also unemployment hit a record high of 9.8 per cent in 2016. The involvement of Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong in the scandal was seen as a throwback to “Hell Joseon”, a phrase that refers to the five-century-long Joseon dynasty, whose feudal system determined the hierarchy in political power.
South Korea now finds itself in a rather unusual situation for the first time in its democratic history. As per law, a new President has to be elected within 60 days. The acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn can remain in office until 9 May, by which date a new President has to be elected. Moon Jae-in, a former opposition party leader who lost to Park in the 2012 election, is the front-runner. If Hwang makes to the presidency, a new approach towards North Korea could be expected, including reconsideration of plans to deploy THAAD anti-missile defense system.
The National Election Commission shall administer oath to the new president before 9 May. Since there would be no presidential transition committee, the new president is expected to rely on Park’s presidential aides and Cabinet ministers in the initial days before making his new team. Park can also no longer escape prosecution as she no longer enjoys immunity. Besides the Samsung scion Lee Jae-Yong, some government officials who have aided Park have been arrested. Park can no longer avoid to be interviewed by prosecutors which she had been doing in recent months and even an arrest warrant could be issued against her. Park also likely to expect to serve a jail term, which would mark a shocking downfall for her if that, happens.
The largest of the opposition parties, the liberal Democratic Party, could emerge as the biggest beneficiary of this Park saga. The liberal party’s presidential hopeful Moon Jae In, who lost to Park in 2012, is now a clear presidential favourite. He is facing a surprise primary challenge from An Hee-jung. If a liberal party leader moves to the Blue House, a new approach such reopening of dialogue with North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions as well as reopening the industrial park in the North Korean border town Kaesong jointly run by the Koreas before Park’s government closed it in 2016 following a nuclear test and long-range rocket launch by North Korea could be expected. If Moon becomes President, a decision on THAAD deployment is also likely to be revisited as the new President would not like to see relations with China and Russia who are opposed to THAAD deployment adversely affected. Moon is likely to adopt a much more conciliatory approach toward North Korea than the conservative predecessor governments in power since 2008. Post- election period could also likely see the resumption of a “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.
Moon’s strongest challenger could be An Hee Jung, the centrist governor of South Chungcheong Province. An’s policy could be slightly different. According to him, reopening of the Kaesong Park could be problematic as South Korea is bound by international sanctions. Because of this, unlike Moon, An supports deployment THAAD in the interest of the country’s security from potential attack from the North.
Park’s involvement in the corruption scandal has adversely affected the conservative Liberal Korea Party. Following disclosure of Park’s involvement, a dozen of lawmakers defected from the Liberal Korea Party and created a new party for the impending presidential election. As regards the Bareun Party to which some from the Liberal Korea Party defected, it floated the candidature of the former UN chief Ban Ki Moon but is in disarray now after Ban abruptly withdrew from the race. The best bet for conservatives could be to support the Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn, the current acting head of state since December 2016 when the Parliament impeached Park. Though Hwang has not declared an ambition to run for President, he has never outright denied interest either.
If Hwang moves to the Blue House, the role of the government caretaker will go to Deputy Prime Minister Yoo Il-hoo until the elections. But following Park’s impeachment, the conservative faction is in disarray, with the ruling party splitting into those who supported the president and those wanting to distance themselves from her.
So, the political situation is fluid.
Relations with the US and China could dominate the coming presidential campaign. The deployment of THAAD could be a factor for debate. Beijing has vigorously protested against the deployment of THAAD battery as it fears the radar could see into its missile deployments, and therefore a threat to its security. It has taken economic measures such as attacking South Korea’s travel economy and targeting Korean economies, prompting retaliatory measures from Seoul. Such economic war between the two large trading partners would hurt both.
The impact of South Korea’s internal political crisis would have consequences in the stock market, though the US does not want to link the decision to deploy THAHD with internal political issue. The new leader is expected to address long-standing challenges such as labour market reforms and escalated geopolitical tensions. South Korea suddenly finds itself at a crossroads.
Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either of the ICCR or the Government of India.