The Fall of 'Corrupt but Competent' Leadership in South Korea

A tale of democratic resurgence

People attend a protest against South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
People attend a protest against South Korean President Park Geun Hye. (Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters)

A bizarre corruption scandal. Massive street protests. A president impeached and removed. On a cursory look, recent events in South Korea may appear to have plunged the country into turmoil. In fact, what the country is experiencing is a remarkable triumph of democracy.

In 2012, South Korea’s democracy experienced a severe regression when Park Geun Hye was elected the country’s 18th president with 51.6 percent of the vote, on the back of a decidedly anti-democratic wave. Amid the global financial crisis of 2008, a large segment of Korean society—particularly its older members—fondly remembered the authoritarian rule of Park Chung Hee, Park Geun Hye’s father. They expected her to deliver results like her father, while looking away from his assault on democracy. A slim majority of Koreans thought they could sacrifice democratic principles in exchange for stability and economic development. But after four years, Korea’s electorate reconsidered the proposition, and moved for a clean break with the legacy of military dictatorship that had plagued South Korea for decades.

Park’s removal carries major ramifications for Korean democracy. It is the culmination of a multi-year movement led by South Korea’s liberal democracy— the opposition, the courts, the media and the civil society—to achieve, pursuant to the rule of law, an orderly and peaceful removal of an illiberal and anti-democratic president. It is South Korea’s own Glorious Revolution.

Although Park’s 2012 victory was narrow, her political advantage appeared formidable. Her Saenuri Party held the majority in the National Assembly, standing ready to pass her legislative agenda. The outgoing president Lee Myung Bak, also a conservative, packed the governing bureaucracy with conservative-friendly officials—including the head of Korea’s spy agency who ran a cyber-operation that generated millions of conservative-leaning fake tweets and internet comments. Even more redoubtable were Park Geun Hye’s supporters, mostly older voters who largely acquired their news from right-wing newspapers and believed the ridiculous rumors about liberal politicians spread through conservative chat rooms. These supporters formed what was called a “concrete floor” for Park Geun Hye, never letting her approval rating fall below 30 percent no matter what Park did.

Undaunted, liberal politicians in South Korea’s National Assembly dove headlong into the concrete floor, doggedly investigating the spy agency’s alleged interference with the presidential election. Although the investigation failed to implicate Park directly, the former head of the spy agency was convicted and sent to prison, damaging her administration’s legitimacy. The opposition also scored a number of hits on cabinet appointments. For the post of prime minister, the highest appointed position in the Korean government, Park named four different nominees who failed to be approved by the National Assembly.

Had it been competent, the Park administration may have overcome its wobbly start. After all, “corrupt but competent” has long been the reputation of Korea’s conservatives. The Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, in which 304 passengers drowned, shattered what remained of that reputation. As the rescue team haplessly watched the ship sink into the murky waters off the southwestern coast of the Korean Peninsula, Park Geun Hye was nowhere to be found, appearing at the disaster response center only seven hours after the news broke. The memory of the victims, most of whom were high school students, became a rallying cry for Korea’s liberals, who wore yellow ribbons to indicate remembrance and solidarity. The tragedy came to fuel the Korean left in its fight against Park.

Arguably, however, the Sewol tragedy had a greater impact on politically disengaged Koreans. The terrifying images of the sinking ship were plastered across every television screen in South Korea for weeks, personalizing the stakes of politics in dramatic fashion: Park’s government had failed in its most basic duty—rescuing people from disaster. Even for ordinary Koreans who did not spend hours reading the political news of the day, the Sewol disaster served as a lurid reminder that electing the wrong leader can mean the difference between life and death.

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.