Rather than owning up to its mistakes, the Park administration turned on its critics—including the parents of the students who perished in the Sewol—as if they were political enemies. Conservative groups demonized them as money-hungry leeches who were demanding excessive compensation from the government. Yet the concrete floor seemed unyielding, sending Korea's liberals into despair. Three years into Park’s presidency, the liberal New Politics Alliance for Democracy party fractured over the question of whether it was too liberal or not liberal enough to wrest power from the conservatives. In early 2016, when it finally split into two parties, liberal politics in Korea appeared doomed. But the liberals’ fortunes would soon change. Despite the split in their ranks, both opposition parties gained seats in the 2016 National Assembly election, pushing Park’s Saenuri Party into the minority.
Then came the final unraveling. Rumors about Park's shady relations with Choi Soon Sil, an unknown outside advisor, had swirled around her for years. But it was the investigative work of journalists at the cable TV network JTBC that unearthed the smoking gun—Choi’s tablet PC, which contained her markup of Park’s speeches along with other confidential government documents. This irrefutable evidence of corruption finally spurred ordinary Koreans to direct action. Starting the weekend after the discovery of the tablet, more than one million citizens braved Korea’s frigid winter for 17 consecutive weekends of candlelight protests at Seoul’s City Hall plaza.
One would be hard-pressed to name another country where one to two million people protested, week after week, with no violence or disorderly behavior. The scene, bathed in candlelight and scored to songs and chants calling for Park’s removal, resembled a groovy rock concert rather than a protest. This was no accident: the peaceful campaign required coordinated efforts by ordinary citizens to ensure their passion did not spill over into violence. Artist Lee Gang Hun, for example, worked with Jeon Hee Jae, CEO of a crowdfunding startup, to prepare and distribute 200,000 flower stickers. Protesters placed the stickers on the police buses that surrounded them, until they resembled mounds of beautiful flowers. College student Kim Geon Jun designed a smartphone app to help protest attendees find the nearest available bathroom. Hundreds of people volunteered each week to direct the massive human traffic and lead the post-rally clean up.
In the wake of the protests, Park’s concrete floor suddenly melted away. Her approval rating dipped below 30 percent, then 20 percent, then 10 percent, finally settling at 4 percent, essentially a statistical error. On December 9, 2016, the National Assembly, including nearly half of the Saenuri Party, voted to impeach her. The Constitutional Court duly held the impeachment trial, and finally removed Park from the presidency on March 10, 2017. Reading the court’s impeachment ruling, Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong Mi painstakingly explained the propriety of its procedures before delivering the final, unanimous decision. Justice An Chang Ho, considered the most conservative justice on the bench, delivered a concurring opinion stressing that Park’s removal was not about conservative or liberal ideology, but was a matter of “actualizing the constitutional values and defending the constitutional order.”
While predicting the future in a political environment as dynamic as South Korea’s is difficult, it’s hard to imagine how the country’s conservatives—who cynically peddled dictatorship nostalgia to win elections and pad their pockets—will survive the fallout of Park’s disastrous presidency. It was years of relentless work by South Korea’s liberal politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens, that achieved this result, cementing the country’s place as Asia’s most advanced democracy.