Policy Alert: Rising Powers Ponder the Impeachment of South Korean President
On December 9, the South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye following a scandal that drove millions to protest throughout the country. While Park offered to step down or shorten her term to avoid an impeachment vote, her opposition in the legislature moved to impeach by a vote of 236 to 56. Park has been under fire with allegations she let a family friend, Choi Soon-sil, have undue influence over her administration with accusations that Choi extorted donations from businesses to curry favor with Blue House and had access to classified government documents.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will assume the presidency until the country’s Constitutional Court rules whether Park must permanently step down, a decision that may take up to six months. Should this happen, South Korea will hold another presidential election within 60 days but it remains uncertain whether the ruling Saenuri Party will be able to maintain its hold on power. In this Policy Alert, we review the reactions within South Korea, China, India, and Japan to Park’s downfall and South Korea’s future.
President Park said she was “gravely accepting parliamentary and public voices” and wished the “current turmoil comes to a stable end.” A Gallup opinion survey had her approval rating at just 4 percent with other polls showing 80 percent in favor of her impeachment. Even 62 members of her own political party voted against Park. This was just the second time a president has been impeached since the Republic of Korea (ROK) became a full-fledged democracy in the late 1980s.
Most editorials and op-eds in the South Korean press did not express much sympathy for President Park. In fact, some outright said “she does not deserve any sympathy.”
- Korea Times accused Park of having “been negligent of the people’s voices, only sticking to her own point-of-view.”
- Hankyoreh regretted Park was “getting ready to fight the people” and ignore the voices of millions of South Koreans who stood vigil against her presidency.
- Another Korea Times editorial claimed her “greatest crime that is not transcribed onto the official list of charges is the destruction of trust in the office of the presidency, and the subsequent sense of hopelessness among the people that may take a great deal of time to heal.” Nevertheless, the paper reminded that “all those involved, including the President, remain innocent until they are proven guilty.”
Several liberal and conservative leaning papers called for pro-Park members – who “ruined the party” – to “step down along with President Park.”
- The Dong-A Ilbo believed that “as President Park has been impeached, it is not right that the Park Geun-hye faction continues to remain in the party. Leaving the party would be the right choice, if they really care for the party.” Korea Times
- Former Saenuri Party Chairman Kim Moo-sung reportedly said “it is imperative to establish a new conservative party that majority of people, who are concerned about the country’s economic and national security crisis, can trust and depend on…”
- The Saenuri Party “will never be able to recover from the crisis and rebuild itself as a healthy, responsible representative of conservatives as long as the Park loyalists do not reflect on their misdeeds,” wrote Korea Herald.
- Korea Times was concerned the Park scandal may have repercussion for future women politicians, observing that “a grave concern runs deep in the minds of many that this scandal may taint all future women that hope to assume leadership in Korea.”
President Park’s scandal prompted several newspapers to revisit the Park government’s slow and controversial response to the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014 that resulted in the death of 304 passengers and crew members.
- Korea JoonAng Daily also wondered about President Park’s whereabouts during the seven hours after the tragic sinking of Sewol ferry and it was related to her current scandal. Kyunghyang Shinmun seconded this viewpoint.
- Korea Herald wanted the independent counsel investigating Park’s bribery allegations to scrutinize allegations that Choi Soon-sil “curbed the state-led rescue activities” to save people from the sinking ferry. The Dong-A Ilbo wanted the same effort.
Some are hopeful that better days for the South Korean democracy are still ahead if political leaders and the public continue to fight for it.
- Hankyoreh saw the impeachment as signaling a “new dawn” for democracy in the country with the vote “not the final stop in the Choi Sun-sil scandal but rather the first stop toward a new future for the Republic of Korea. This is an opportunity not merely to remove the people who appropriated state resources for themselves but to replace the obsolete systems, conditions, and structures that made such appropriation possible.”
- The Chosunilbo appealed to the “rule of law” as the guiding force toward “an honorable outcome” as Korea enters “uncharted waters.”
- The Dong-A Ilbo called on acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn to “remain politically neutral and cooperate with the National Assembly to become a successful acting president.” The paper also urged opposition parties to show him “due respect” during this political transition. The Chosunilbo echoed this position.
While avowing that China has a principle of not interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang hoped South Korea could soon restore stability and develop good relations with China. Beijing has been harshly critical of South Korea’s plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) – an anti-missile system targeting North Korea but one that China believes could disrupt its own nuclear deterrent – and will watch closely to see whether the new ROK leadership will continue the program.
Most of the media and expert commentary in China portrayed the embattled Park as unnecessarily impairing Sino-ROK relations and considered her downfall a direct result of these anti-China policies.
- After leading “her country astray from the normal path,” Global Times blamed her fall from power on a “reckless and capricious” “180-degree change in foreign policy” with “hysteric criticism of China” and THAAD deployment having “seriously violated China’s national interest.” The paper alleged Park’s moves toward the United States and Japan pushed “South Korea back to the shadows of the Cold War.”
- Liu Jiangyong, professor of international relations at Tsinghua University, admitted the uncertain political situation in South Korea might have “adverse consequences for China-ROK ties as well as for the Korean Peninsula.” Liu saw Japan moving in to take advantage of this chaotic period to sign a military agreement that may harm Beijing’s interests.
- A major trilateral summit between China, Japan, and South Korea originally scheduled for this month has now been postponed to 2017. Huang Dahui, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at Renmin University of China, lamented this delay and urged South Korea to adopt a “more balanced diplomacy between China and Japan,” especially as President Donald Trump may “change policy toward the Asia-Pacific.”
- Korean studies expert Zhang Liangui of the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee predicted the THAAD deployment will move ahead since “nobody will stand up to say no” during the leadership transition. Cai Jian, professor of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University, blamed South Korea’s political turmoil on the THAAD deployment.
- Lu Chao, research fellow at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, urged China and South Korea to “remain composed and avoid populist sentiments in economic, cultural, and people-to-people exchanges” at this time. Lu saw THAAD and Park’s efforts to have a “bigger presence of U.S. military forces” as worsening “inter-Korean relations in every aspect.”
- Zhao Lixin, director of the Department of International Political Science at Yanbian University, questioned if the Trump Administration will redefine the U.S.-ROK alliance with Seoul becoming “humbler while the U.S. tougher.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Park have personally made efforts in recent years to build closer ties, including boosting trade and enhancing cooperation on counter-terrorism and maritime security. Bilateral trade between India and South Korea has “consistently increased over the past decades” with a target of $40 billion in annual trade.
Indian media debated Park’s legacy.
- The Hindu concluded Park’s “record in office was far from exemplary” with slower than expected economic growth, poor relations with China, a controversial THAAD deployment, and an inability to calm tensions with North Korea. The paper wanted Park to have resigned to spare the country from months of political uncertainty as the Constitutional Court issues a final decision.
- In the days leading up to the impeachment, The Hindu criticized Seoul’s strategy of “picking winners” among competing industrial groups after allegations of extortion and corruption emerged during Park’s political scandal.
While Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga insisted Tokyo “has not been affected so far” by the impeachment vote, a senior foreign ministry official admitted turmoil in South Korea and a possible inward-looking President Trump benefits Russia, North Korea, and China at the expense of Japan.
Many papers in Japan recognized that a prolonged turmoil is inevitable for the ROK. Most of the apprehensions seem to be about the impending power vacuum and the opposition parties’ stance on South Korea’s relationship with its neighbors, including Japan.
- As of early December, The Japan News said “it is worrying that the opposition parties seeking to win back power harbor reconciliatory tendencies toward North Korea.”
- Following the Parliament’s approval to impeach President Park, The Japan News also expressed concern over the South Korean opposition parties’ stance on South Korea’s relationship with its neighbor. “It is necessary to closely watch whether South Korean opposition parties will inflame national sentiment by taking advantage of issues related to the perception of history to change Japan-South Korea relations for the worse,” the paper said.
- Nikkei Asian Review proclaimed that Park’s impeachment left “Japan fretting over power balance” in Asia working in favor of China and North Korea.
- Asahi Shimbun opined “the country’s lawmakers need to use the challenging process of dealing with the current political confusion to push through serious political reform.”
- Mainichi worried about the looming leadership vacuum and urged South Korea to not allow a lengthy leadership vacuum during the Court’s deliberation period since “South Korea will face difficulties building up good relations with the next U.S. administration” and other important regional security issues. The paper moaned that “uncertainty in South Korea’s political situation has discouraged companies from investing in the country.”
- Asahi Shimbun also argued President Park “effectively destroyed herself with her utter ineptitude at responding to the crisis of her own making.” Furthermore, the paper thought the political turmoil surrounding President Park seriously undermined the South Korean people’s trust in politics.