The struggle to get South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye out of the Blue House and into jail while unifying behind a single liberal to replace her looms as the hard part after her impeachment last week by a lopsided 234-56 vote in the National Assembly
The populist protest against Park’s rule, far from having been defused by her impeachment, promises to gain in intensity while prosecutors reveal still more details of the ties between Park and her closest friend, Choi Sun-sil, and a growing number of top aides. They’re all going to trial on charges of corruption and misuse of state secrets in the snowballing scandal, in which prosecutors say Park was a co-conspirator.
Nonetheless, Park still resides in her residence in the center of power in South Korea though barred from the offices of the president and staff in the Blue House complex while the man she had appointed as prime minister, Hwang Gyo-ahn, serves as “acting president.”
Legally Park’s foes can’t get rid of her until at least six members of the nine-member constitutional court approve the motion, which may take as long as six months under the constitution adopted in June 1987 at the height of equally massive protests. In the meantime, the constitution guarantees her immunity from prosecution for just about anything but treason.
Several hundred thousand demonstrators gathered in near-freezing temperatures on Dec. 10, a day after the impeachment vote in the assembly, as they have every Saturday for six weeks. On an occasion that seemed more like a victory celebration or festival than a political protest, they shouted, sang and cheered, demanding Park’s resignation after which she too would face indictment and imprisonment.
Meanwhile, the case against Park herself is growing, with detailed revelations of phone contacts between Park, Choi and her aides that show she exercised personal pressure to arm-twist Korea’s largest chaebol or conglomerates into giving funds for two foundations. Choi, the woman who was Park’s closest friend for decades, had no official position but is central to the case in which she’s widely portrayed as a Rasputin-like figure who inveigled Park into shamanistic rituals.
The friendship between the two dates from the days when Choi’s late father, pastor of a fringe “Church of Eternal Life,” cozied up to Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, assassinated in 1979 by his intelligence chief after 18 years and five months of draconian rule.
In a populist movement against entrenched conservatives, the challenge for those amassed against Park is enormous. Sure, they may get her out of the Blue House and even into jail. They will have much more trouble, however, dislodging the conservative forces that dominate a ruling structure that includes the chaebol, responsible for 80 percent of Korea’s gross national product, and the armed forces, holding the line against what they see as a rising North Korean threat.
That’s why Moon Jae-in, whom Park defeated by 1.2 percent of the ballots in the 2012 election in which the National Intelligence Service was accused of manipulating the voting at the behest of the Blue House, has called for the resignation of her entire cabinet. Most of them, of course, are Park appointees dedicated to the status quo under an acting president who’s essentially an interim caretaker.
Moon is sure to want to run again in the election, which must be held within 60 days after Park leaves the Blue House. He remains the leading light of the Democratic Party, the Minjoo, the same party that held sway for the decade of the liberal presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008. The Minjoo in assembly elections last April shocked Park’s Saenuri Party by winning 123 seat to 122 for the Saenuri – a gain of 21 for the Minjoo and a loss of 24 for the Saenuri.
The Minjoo, though, faces a serious struggle in the form of the People’s Party, whose star, Ahn Cheol-soo, a multi-millionaire who made a fortune from an antivirus program. The People’s Party provided the biggest surprise of all last April, winning 38 seats, up from 20, and now, as a centrist force, has enough leverage for Ahn to consider a run for the presidency.
Nobody forgets, though, that Ahn has twice bowed out of races in which he had cast himself as a leading contender – first in 2011, when he decided not to run for Seoul mayor against the liberal Park Won-soon and then in 2012 when he pulled out of the race against Moon for the Minjoo nomination for president. Mayor Park, though not a strong candidate for president, was elected mayor not only in 2011 but again in 2012 when he defeated the billionaire Chung Mong-joon, who inherited the controlling stake in Hyundai Heavy Industries, the world’s largest commercial ship builder, from his father, Chung Ju-yung, founder of the Hyundai empire.
If Ahn finally does run for president, he would have to do so through an unlikely alliance of opportunists. Either Moon would have to give up his own ambitions and endorse Ahn on a Minjoo-People’s Party ticket – or Ahn might go to bed with the conservative Saenuri on the theory that that he would be just the person to hold the fractured conservatives together.
Right now the Saenuri’s likeliest candidate is the outgoing UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, a bland diplomatic eminence who was foreign minister under the liberal Roh Moo-hyum before going to the UN nearly 10 years ago. Ban will be in Seoul in January, perfect timing to carry the Saenuri banner as a conciliatory figure ready to heal the wounds of division among conservatives and try to negotiate with North Korea too. He’s a favorite among an older generation – but not beloved by younger Koreans who see more of the same-style domination by conservatives whose hand in a time of economic unease is increasingly resented.
So what about a real departure – in the form of the radical Mayor Lee Jae-myung of the fast-growing Seoul suburb of Seongnam, a bedroom city of more than a million people? Lee has captured the imaginations of protesters by his rhetoric against old-style leadership and also by social welfare campaigns on behalf of the poor and sick in his own city and is running even with Moon in the polls.
In the surge of populism against Park, protest so far has been amazingly nonviolent. Typically, entire families show up posing for selfies with their kids against the backdrop of thousands holding candles in paper cups or LED lights made to look like candles while speakers, young and old, male and female, shout and shriek from a huge stage in the center of the broad avenue leading to Gyeongbuk-palace, the restored home of the Chosun dynasty kings who ruled Korea for half a millennium until the onset of Japanese rule in 1905.
At the latest protest on Saturday night, the only policemen I saw were standing guard around the American embassy, barricaded by rows of police buses, but no one seemed to notice them. There were no anti-American slogans, no calls for American forces to leave, while the protesters as before shouted, in Korea, “Park Geun-hye, get out,” as they’ve been doing for weeks.
Park under the constitution can only serve a single five-year term, and she would have liked to hang on until the next regular election for president a year from now and the inauguration of her successor in February 2018 just before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
No way, however, will she have that luxury. If the constitutional court, dominated by conservatives, were for any reason to reject impeachment, the fear is that protests could turn violent while Park holds on in isolation in her Blue House home.
Ultimately the army could intervene, ending a remarkable display of democracy and rule by law that has so far distinguished the movement to oust a president weakened by corruption and incapable of dealing with widespread social unrest. Nobody wants to see a reversion to the era of dictatorship marked by the coup staged by Park’s father in May 1961.
Donald Kirk is a longtime Asia political commentator and contributor to Asia Sentinel.