The Ides of March have settled upon the Korean Peninsula. The rule of law is gaining the upper hand, simultaneously strengthening and testing democracy in the Republic of Korea, or South Korea.
Discredited and now dismissed, former South Korean president Park Geun-hye was in defiant mood last week, vowing that her sullied name would be redeemed despite a decision by the country’s constitutional court to remove her from office.
“It will take time, but I believe the truth will be revealed,” she was quoted as saying. Throughout her presidency Park has been dogged by incidents that have had nothing to do with her personally, and yet have turned the popular mind against her, commentators say. Her supporters believe she has been treated as a scapegoat.
Reverence and irreverence are characteristics of the Korean social and political system. The country long suffered from Japanese colonial rule, and after World War Two the two Koreas were divided by ideology but united initially by a mistrust of Japan.
Corruption also became a way of life in South Korea, and Park was escorted by police out of the Blue House, the presidential residence in the South Korean capital Seoul, after the court’s ruling.
She left with her head held high in a motorcade of black cars two days after the court dismissed her over the scandal, and she is now facing the possibility of prosecution and jail. “It will take time, but I believe the truth will be revealed,” she said.
All eight judges on the court pronounced her guilty. “President Park Geun-hye has just departed the Blue House and headed for her private home,” an official said after the ruling. The won, South Korea’s currency, rose about 1.1 per cent in the aftermath of her dismissal.
Discredited, Park’s behaviour infuriated many of her compatriots. “Even at the moment she left, she refused to say a word to repent in front of the people, but said such and such about truth and declared nothing but disobedience,” commented Choo Mi-Ae, head of the opposition Democratic Party.
Park’s sacking also fired up the debate about the Korean Peninsula’s future. Awkward questions are regularly asked about wealthy South Korea and its impoverished northern neighbour. South Korea’s economy has soared at an annual average growth rate of 10 per cent for over 30 years, fuelled by annual export growth of 20 per cent.
According to the UNDP Human Development Index, South Korea is East Asia’s most developed country, superseding even Japan.
With a GDP of $1.404 trillion, South Korea is among the world’s wealthiest nations. Yet, prosperity has come at a price, and the country’s birth rate was the lowest in the world in 2009, and it may witness a drastic reduction in its population in the decades to come.
South Korea has seen the steepest decline in working age population of the most advanced and highly industrialised nations. Declining fertility rates combined with rapidly rising life expectations are bound to cause social and economic turmoil in the future.
Scrambling to put someone in Park’s place, South Korea is now in a political impasse. Beyond the damage done to South Korean politics, Park has emerged as the chief casualty of this sorry saga.
South Korea was previously governed by military rulers, including Park’s father, and the nation has only experienced Western-style democracy for 30 years. Park is its first female president and the daughter of Cold War dictator Park Chung-Hee. She is an icon of the country’s conservative establishment that has joined Washington in pressing for a hard line against North Korea.
Nevertheless, she has long declared that she does not feel comfortable with the status quo and has sought change and political reform. But she nevertheless resorted to the traditional rules of working in conjunction with the chaebols, from chae “wealth or property” and bol “faction or clan”, the business conglomerates that dominate South Korean industry and are tremendously influential in the country.
The chaebols are alleged to funnel bribes to politicians through slush funds and illegal donations. Lee Jae-yong, eldest son of Lee Kun-hee, a South Korean magnate and chairman of Samsung, one of the nation’s largest chaebols, is accused of bribing a friend of the ex-president.
The chaebols are multinationals and own numerous international enterprises. These giant economic empires are typically controlled by a chairman with power over all operations. Park relied on certain chaebols indirectly and through the good offices of confidantes and friends for fear of dealing openly with them.
In 1988, a member of a chaebol family, Chung Mong-joon, president of Hyundai, successfully ran for the National Assembly in South Korea. The collusion between bosses of the chaebols and successive South Korean governments granted preferential status to these omnipotent companies.
Park thus did not invent anything new in her dealings with them and was simply following in the footsteps of her predecessors. Unfortunately, her pursuits misfired, but her fall from grace may hold out new promise for South Korea.
After three decades stuck in the old ways, a desire to quell the hegemony of the chaebols may have emerged in South Korean politics. The protectionist policies and preferable government treatment granted the chaebols the ability to exhibit monopolistic behaviour, for example.
Three months ago, the country’s National Assembly voted to impeach Park. Many commentators said this was not necessarily a bad thing, as change in order to preserve past achievements was a prerequisite for the nation’s survival in politically volatile Northeast Asia.
Park could not defy the odds stacked against her, and she lacked the authority to do what she had promised. Having now lost her political immunity, she could face criminal charges over bribery, extortion and abuse of power in connection with allegations of conspiring with her friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil.
The latter, the daughter of cult leader Choi Tae-min, supposedly exercised a mysterious power over Park. Chung Yoo-ra, Choi’s daughter, was recently arrested in Denmark, and as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press she was awaiting repatriation to South Korea.
Park was removed through a constitutional mechanism. Subpoenaed, she denied the charges against her, but the justices disagreed, saying she had abused her authority. Nevertheless, hundreds of her supporters stood near her home for hours on Sunday before she vacated the Blue House, waving the South Korean flag and photographs of Park and her late father, singing the national anthem and shouting “nullify the impeachment!”
Older South Koreans tend to be against the ex-president, but the younger generation is nostalgic about the past and hence more pro-Park.
Her administration attempted to derail reform of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, oversaw the disbandment of a small leftist party ostensibly for threatening national security, and maintained a blacklist of cultural figures who had spoken out against government policies or supported opposition politicians.
All this made Park a great leader in the eyes of the conservatives, but a terrible one for liberals and leftists.
The liberals’ presidential hopeful is now Moon Jae-in, who served as leader of the opposition Minjoo Party from 2015 to 2016. Moon has criticised Park and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak for derailing progress made in inter-Korean relations during the previous liberal administrations.
He is calling for a two-step approach on North Korea, with talks leading first to economic unification and ultimately to the political and military unification of the two countries.