Former President Park Geun-hye was a lot of firsts; she was the first female president in South Korea, the first female president popularly elected as head of state in East Asia, and the first democratically elected president to be removed from office in Korea. On March 10, 2017, the Korean constitutional court upheld the impeachment that had been approved by the Korean parliament in a unanimous 8–0 decision, terminating Park’s presidency 11 months early.
During her 2012 presidential campaign, she had an approval rating of 45.5% when competing against all potential candidates because she inherited many supporters from her father, Park Chung-hee. He was a Korean military dictator during the Cold War, and he was the icon of the conservative establishment that collaborated with Washington in pressing a hard line against North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Many elderly citizens talked nostalgically of the past when Park Chung-hee had led Korea through rapid economic development (often called the Miracle on the Han River). They felt they have been left out in today’s prosperous South Korea where Confucian family values have largely vanished and the rate of old-age poverty is the highest among OECD countries. Park Geun-hye’s conservative stance on all issues had reminded them of Park Chung-hee, and so she was sworn in in 2013 with high approval ratings.
However, support for Park Geun-hye followed a downward trend throughout her presidential term. It hit a low in April 2014 after the sinking of the Sewol ferry when the Park administration’s failure to act quickly resulted in systemic lapses was blamed for the Sewol ferry tragedy. Even so, Park’s true fall from grace began on October 24, 2016, when JTBC, a Korean broadcasting company, uncovered a tablet computer belonging to Choi Soon-sil. Choi was a friend of Park who held no official position in the government, yet the documents found on the computer suggested that Choi had received confidential presidential documents and edited key speeches that she was not authorized to handle.
Choi Soon-sil is the daughter of Choi Tae-min, a cult leader that became a mentor to Park after her mother (then the First Lady) was assassinated. Since then, Choi Soon-sil was Park’s confidante, but after Park became president, Choi became one of the most powerful people in Korea; she secretly wielded almost unchecked influence, exerting control over Park’s policy direction, the hiring of government officials, Park’s speeches, and even what she wore.
After Park publicly apologized about the scandal, prosecutors began to question Choi and Lee Jae-yong, the vice chairman of Samsung. Although Park had promised to cut the government’s close ties to Korean conglomerates, or chaebols, it had been evident for a while now that she not only failed in this regard, but actually reinforced the corrupt system. Samsung, among other conglomerates, was thought to have been pressured by Choi to transfer millions of dollars to “nonprofit” foundations (Mir Foundation & K-Sports Foundation) controlled by none other than Choi Soon-sil.
After a series of mass rallies calling for Park’s impeachment and interrogations of the heads of conglomerates, lawmakers voted to impeach Park among charges of corruption on December 9. Power was immediately transferred to Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister. A pro-Park group, Park Sa Mo (which literally means “the people who love Park Geun-hye) that mostly consists of elderly people held counter-rallies, expressing their disapproval of the motion to impeach their beloved president. Meanwhile, Park blocked investigators from entering the Blue House where she had holed up after the National Assembly motion to impeach her. She refused to be questioned and attended none of the 20 hearings at which the court heard evidence against her, but in the end, the constitutional court voted to uphold the impeachment motion. A snap presidential election is to be held within 60 days, and opposition parties have been rallying support for their candidates.
Park’s downfall is expected to shift South Korean politics from the conservative Saenuri party (which is now called the Liberty Korea Party) to the liberal opposition whose leaders want more diplomatic engagement with North Korea and are wary of a major military confrontation against North Korea and China. Of all the candidates running for the position, Moon Jae-in, a liberal Korean politician, is expected by many to be the front-runner.
However, many consider the impeachment of park to be a victory of Korean democracy because it was change brought about by a politicized youth. This controversy fostered political awareness in generation that had been showing downward trends in voter turnout all around the world. Although millennials are better educated than past generations, more likely to go on a protest or to become vegetarian, and less keen on drugs and alcohol, they lost many of the habits that inclined their parents to vote; they are less likely to watch news on television, read the newspaper or listen to news on radio.
The increasing disparity between the rich and the poor in Korea especially after 1997 Asian currency crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis have led to many young people struggling with precarious working conditions and job insecurity. The mass public demonstrations that ultimately led to Park’s ousting was led by the nation’s youth who have grown increasingly vexed at the corrupt elites who seemed to be above the law. The nation’s youth who were at the forefront of the peaceful protests learned that their actions ultimately could bring about change and even hold to account the most powerful people in the country: Lee Jae-yong and Park Geun-hye.
– Kristin Kim (’20)
Featured Image: CNN