Changing dynamics in Asia: the fallout of South Korea’s presidential impeachment

By Sarah Bell on March 28, 2017
President Park Geun-Hye holds a moment of silence for the victims of the Sewol ferry disaster in 2014. (CC Republic of Korea - Flickr)

The Presidential impeachment is a landmark in the minds of many Koreans; Park Geun-hye is the first President in the history of South Korea to be successfully impeached through the constitutional court process. The verdict of March 10, 2017 signifies a fundamental change in how the government treats it’s powerful; South Korea has an extensive history of pardoning high-profile figures, a practice politicians now say must come to an end.

Political demonstrations have continued in the Gyeonbokgung area, home of the Presidential Blue House. Protests will continue until citizens see that justice has been delivered, that Park Geun-hye has been tried and convicted in a criminal court of law. The case is a lengthy one, owing to the depth and length of relationship Park has sustained with the key figure, Choi Sun-sil. Peculiarities aside, of which there have been many, the verdict to impeach was based on 5 key violations, which will form the basis of her criminal trial in the coming months.

Key Violations of Duty

Park acted in a manner that betrayed her duty to democracy. The laptop and subsequent documents discovered by local investigative broadcaster JTBC found that one of Park’s presidential aides delivered documents to an individual without the appropriate level of clearance for approximately 3 years. The individual, long-time friend Choi Sun-sil, was found to be in possession of classified documents pertaining to government nominations, cabinet meetings, overseas diplomatic trips, and key political meetings. One key document initially discovered contained a digital trail that pointed to Choi editing work before Park delivered it – indicating that Choi was in fact creating key documents for the President.

President Park is accused of abusing her power and has often been compared at times to her father, a dictator who on the one hand is credited for bringing about Korea’s economic development while on the other being responsible for a punishing regime of control. Park is accused of treating journalists and lawmakers unfairly as well as exercising liberties with the nation’s history. During her term, Park spearheaded a rewrite of the education system to portray her own father and his legacy in a more positive light. This outraged the public, including South Korea’s historians, who fundamentally disagree with the revisionist histories.

It has been alleged that Park violated property rights, forcing a number of chaebol, a large business conglomerate, typically a family-owned one, into donating large sums of money to Choi’s foundation in exchange for political gains; Samsung, Lotte and a number of other high-profile companies have been unmasked as being involved, willingly or unwillingly. The money obtained was funneled through entitles set up by Choi, under the name MIR and K-Sports, collectively receiving 80 billion Korean won. It has been alleged that President Park was involved in setting up these organizations, creating with Choi a financial base from which to start after finishing her Presidential term, which was due to cease at the end of 2017.

Park is accused of breaching the freedom of the press, after she forced the president of the daily newspaper Segye Ilbo to step down after threatening a tax probe and legal action as retaliation for them reporting about Choi’s ex-husband, Chung Yoon-hoi, alleged to have conspired with President Park. In 2014, it was stated that “The report pointed to Chung as a clandestine figure, pulling strings behind the scenes, who met regularly with a circle of aides to President Park to influence political affairs”; an accusation clearly holding merit.

Former President Park is accused of violating citizens’ rights. In the first few hours after the Sewol sank in 2014, it is alleged that Park did nothing. As a result, over 300 people lost their lives. The Sewol was finally raised this week, 1073 days after the ship initially sank. This move has been criticized by many as a move by the right to sway voters favor in the upcoming Presidential election.

Vying For Candidacy

With the Presidential Election set for May 9th this year, speculation abounds as to whether the current crisis and popular dissent of the right will be enough to swing the peninsula to the left. Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party’s hopeful in the 2012 general election which Park won, will stand again as their preferred presidential candidate. A former Human Rights attorney and former member of the National Assembly for Busan, Moon is in possession of something that Park never gained, the support of the younger generation, making him the current preferred candidate to win the election.

Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of antivirus software company AhnLab, Inc, is standing for election as the candidate of the newly formed People’s Party. A former member of the Democratic Party, he founded the People’s Party in January 2016, as a result of a fallout with current Presidential frontrunner, Moon Jae-in.

Nam Kyung-pil is the frontrunner for the Bareun Party, a former member of Park Geun-Hye’s Saenuri Party, who left as a result of her scandal. The Bareun Party is composed of 29 anti-Park Saenuri members, the party for right-leaning citizens to follow. Saenuri, President Park’s party, is no longer in the vernacular of South Korean politics. In February of 2017, it was transformed into the Liberty Korea Party. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, the acting President since December 9, is considered a Presidential hopeful among those loyal to the right. He has not indicated whether he intends to run for the position, but his stance on North Korea makes him a potential favorite. He favors a continuance of Park's strategy, something the older generation supports. He is a vocal supporter of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense - the U.S.'s anti-ballistic missile system), and his vision will resonate with those loyal to the Saenuri party stronghold.

Tensions Running High

The political turmoil signifies big changes ahead for South Korea’s neighbors should a liberal President be elected, as citizens feel it is time for South Korea to be more politically active, rather than a passive recipient, on the world stage.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week stated a hardline approach to North Korea, putting all neighboring countries at risk of retaliation by the North. On Thursday, former chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Gallucci retaliated, stating that “regardless of whether it's preemptive or preventive strikes, is sure to prompt retaliation that could lead to a second Korean War.”

Front running candidate, Moon Jae-in, has disagreed with this approach to North Korea, stating that “Seoul needs to pursue a more flexible approach to deal with Pyongyang”. He has also publicly stated he intends to put a hold on THAAD, enabling South Korea to patch up their relations with China and Russia, who condemn South Korea’s decision to install the system, viewing it as a threat to their safety.

Moon has indicated he wishes for the U.S. alliance to continue, but with an attitude of open negotiation with the North. He has also announced his intention to renegotiate the 2015 Comfort Women deal, made by Park and denounced by citizens and victims as being insufficient.

How the present political turmoil in Seoul will affect its neighbors hinges on the result of the upcoming election. Should a left-leaning President be elected, expect South Korea to become a stronger, more demanding, yet more progressively cooperative power in Asia. If the right is elected yet again, expect little more than the status quo.