A New Test for South Korea's Young Democracy

The impeachment of Park Geun Hye reflects a triumph for a society tired of corruption. But she’s merely a symptom of a far deeper problem.

Protesters hold candles as they celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun Hye.
Protesters hold candles as they celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's ousted leader Park Geun Hye.  (Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters)

In a ruling on Friday, the eight justices of South Korea’s Constitutional Court rejected four of the five impeachment charges against President Park Geun Hye. But they were unanimous on the fifth, which was enough for her to have to go. By giving her best friend Choi Soon Sil access to confidential documents and by forcing some conglomerates to donate to Choi’s sports and cultural foundations, Park had violated the Constitution, the justices said. “President Park impaired the spirit of democracy and the rule of law,” Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung Mi said, her court building ringed by riot police behind a wall of police buses that held back supporters of the embattled president. “Her violations of the Constitution and the law are a betrayal of the people’s trust and cannot be tolerated.”

If this seems a little vague, it gets more so. Hearings by the court, another series of proceedings by the National Assembly that impeached her, and a 70-day investigation by a special prosecutor, have determined that Choi Soon Sil was indeed sent presidential speeches to edit. But none of these bodies appears to have established what makes this an impeachable offense. Secondly, many Korean sports and cultural foundations are supported by conglomerates acting in their own self-interest—to maintain good “government relations”—and it was not established whether they were exactly forced to donate or just asked to do so.

This story isn’t over yet, and it’s possible all will become clear during the trials of the central figures, including Choi, the heads of Samsung and other groups, and possibly Park, now that she no longer enjoys presidential immunity. For outsiders, this series of events can seem bewildering. You would expect truth and legal clarity to come before a step as drastic as removing a democratically elected head of state from office.

The fact that it hasn’t suggests there is some other factor at play. In fact, there is, and it is one that is widely understood by Koreans—which is why the raising of these doubts would be annoying to many of them—but unspoken. It is that the Koreans have had enough. Not of Park, per se, but of abuse. Here’s how that works.

The Koreans have become a very egalitarian people, thanks to a harsh history. For centuries, they endured the rigors of a caste system under which people could be punished for crimes like giving their children too elevated-sounding names. In those days, bureaucratic elites passed the day smoking, napping, writing poetry, and having people tortured. So complete was the upheaval brought about by Japan’s colonial takeover in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the master builders of modern South Korea, like its military dictators and the founders of Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung, and the others, came from groups once considered scum—the soldier and the merchant.

As with many a revolution, a new elite soon came to enjoy its privileges. But in 1987, millions of ordinary Koreans took to the streets and forced the military dictator to permit democratic elections. They’ve had one every five years ever since. It’s a young democracy but in six elections, already the opposition has won twice.

Compared to many countries, South Korea is fiercely democratic. But South Koreans want to be better. After each election, the winner is allowed to act like a short-term monarch and everyone blessed with a connection looks for advantage. By the end of the fourth year, the stench of favor is too much, and approval ratings plunge so low that the outgoing president is considered a liability by his own party’s next candidate. Of the five democratically elected presidents before Park, one was jailed, another committed suicide to avoid a prosecution investigation, and the other three saw their family members go to jail. Now, Park is the first to actually be tossed out.

Although disappointing on the policy front, Park, in all fairness, has been no worse than the others on the moral front. In fact, being unmarried—and, as far as we know, never even having had a boyfriend—as well as being distanced from her siblings, she was assumed to be free of the complications that dogged her predecessors. So, when it turned out she had a best friend who enjoyed unheard of privileges, whose daughter rode a horse in the Olympics, and who received unfair entrance to a university, the country went ape.

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.