As protests swelled in downtown Seoul last fall, and millions held candles in the street and dads hoisted their kids atop their shoulders to get a better view of history in the making, the establishment knew what it had to do. Prosecutors had to find a reason to put Park and others behind bars, politicians had to find the pretext to impeach, and, yes, the Constitutional Court had to find the justification to uphold the impeachment. If this sounds cynical, it is not meant as such. Seldom have the Korean people spoken so forcefully, and they will be heard because their institutions have been too weak to deliver the quality democracy that they yearn for.
The question now is whether it will be delivered. It’s a big if. The riots of 1987—a vigorous exchange of Molotov cocktails and tear gas much different from today’s middle-class candle waving—delivered a big step. But their success also led to 30 years of street protest.
It’s possible now that South Korea’s elite is too entrenched and its institutions too weak to deliver the fairness and competence the people want, and that the main legacy of the anti-Park protests will be a new habit of protest by impeachment. If so, Moon Jae In, the current favorite to win the presidential election to be held in May, should look out. On the other hand, Moon could be just the timely figure the nation is looking for to take the unusual step of reducing presidential powers and support the National Assembly in changing the Constitution accordingly.
Given this need to improve the young democracy even in the face of the ever-present annoyance of North Korea, Moon has a winning CV. Not only is he a former elite special-forces soldier, he is also a former human-rights lawyer and was chief of staff under former President Roh Moo Hyun, the leader who did most to advance democratic rights in South Korea.
Another necessary but even more delicate task for the new political leadership will be to curb the power of the country’s chaebol or conglomerates, many of which, like Samsung, have been caught up in the current presidential scandal. The donations to Choi’s foundations are emblematic of a problem that has dogged South Korea for decades, and which its leaders seem incapable of solving.
At issue is the fact that the founding families that control these vast corporate empires do so despite owning, on average, under 4 percent of the shares (with Samsung, it is under 2 percent). They do this through a system of cross-shareholding between affiliates. Their argument for maintaining this disproportionate control is that, absent their leadership, the economy would falter and fall—an argument supported by their multi-billion-dollar annual largesse towards cultural, sports, media, and academic institutions.
On the international front, meanwhile, the new Korean leadership will need to reaffirm the strong relationship with the United States—and above all, put the new Trump administration on notice that the military option with North Korea is a non-starter—as well as improving relations with both regional neighbors, Japan and China.
Meanwhile, whoever the next president is, he (so far there are no women in contention), in two or three years’ time, will face the thorny question of whether or not to pardon Park. Even by then, she may not have fully grasped what happened this past week.