Democracy — People Power in South Korea

February 1, 2017

Democracy — People Power in South Korea

by Kim Kee-seok

Image result for People Power in South Korea

People Power. Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets of Seoul  Picture: Jeon Heon-Kyun-Pool/Getty Images Source:Getty Images

The Park Geun-hye scandal of 2016 brings both despair and hope for South Korean democracy.

Despair comes from the abuse of presidential power that would seem implausible in a democratic republic. President Park is accused of transferring a substantive part of her official power to an old friend Choi Soon-sil — who held no formal position in the government — and allowing her to wield undue and wide-reaching influence over state affairs.


Key presidential aides, members of the ruling party and high profile governmental officials all failed — or never tried — to check or control this absurd behaviour. As a result, President Park has been impeached by the parliament by an overwhelming margin and South Korea’s ruling party (the Saenuri Party) split into two.

Image result for Park Geun-hyePresident  Park Geun-hye in the UK to Her Majesty The Queen

Hope comes in that the scandal showed the remarkable tolerance and democratic consciousness of the South Korean people. The candlelit demonstrations — triggered by Park Geun-hye’s unappreciative apology statements — spread to 10 million people by the end of 2016. Every weekend, millions of demonstrators in major cities across the country — including Gwanghwa-mun Square in Seoul — called for President Park’s resignation or her parliamentary impeachment.

But to the surprise of most international media outlets, no violent incidents occurred throughout the duration of the protests. The protestors showed genuine democratic citizenship — sublimating violence into peace, anger into festivities, and humiliation into parody and laughter. This leaves an unprecedented historical example that is rarely found in the experiences of any age, country or nation.

The real puzzle is why and how the unlikely reconciliation of such desperate derailment of democracy and democratic citizenship was possible in South Korea. Why did the South Korean people elect a bizarre president like Park Geun-hye, and why didn’t the democratic checks and balances work while such an absurd power transfer existed for more than three and a half years?

While Park had already showed problems such as incompetence, political disillusionment and weak communication skills during her 2012 presidential campaign, South Korean voters ignored these negative signals and elected her as president. Furthermore, even after her inauguration, an array of clear policy failures — such as the Ferry Sewol tragedy, the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) incident and the incessant personnel and diplomatic difficulties — were not reflected in Park’s (abnormally) high approval ratings.

Resolving this important puzzle will be one of the key challenges for South Korean politics and democracy in 2017 and beyond. Without sound leadership, South Korea faces numerous challenges, including deepening socio-economic polarisation, serious economic downturn, mounting household debt, icy relations with North Korea, and changes in international affairs following the election of US President-elect Trump.

Image result for Park and Choi Soon-sil

Forthcoming political processes include the special prosecutor’s investigation of Park and Choi Soon-sil (pic above), the Constitutional Court’s deliberation over the presidential impeachment motion and the presidential election. Most importantly, South Korea should search for a systematic solution to its democracy puzzle. It needs to identify and reform the factors that misled voters to elect a bizarre president and to support her regardless of repeated policy failures.

In general, the puzzle has much to do with the over-concentration of political power in the President’s position — the ‘emperor president’ complex — and the economic wealth of the chaebols (South Korea’s family-owned business conglomerates). The President’s influence misled authorities — such as prosecutors, police, the National Intelligence Service and mass media — into having a pro-government bias, since the president holds strong influence on the leadership formation in each organisation. This concentration of power has systematically undermined Korean democracy.

Constitutional amendment is likely to become a key tool in the search for an answer to this puzzle. South Korean society seems to have achieved a sort of social consensus that the current constitution — which was established as a result of democratisation in 1987 — is outdated and needs to be amended to establish a more solid democratic framework. But there is currently no consensus on any alternative or superior political economic system. Rather, the beginning of serious debate on constitutional amendment — combined with the struggle for a new president — will introduce intense political competitions and conflict.

In the process, which of the desperate or hopeful faces of Korean democracy appears on the surface will decide the future of Korean democracy – rosy progress, or gloomy decay.

Kim Kee-seok is a Professor of Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University.

7 thoughts on “Democracy — People Power in South Korea

  1. CLF, LaMoy, Conrad et. al,

    People Power works in Korea, but not BERSIH 5.0 in Malaysia. UMNO remains dominant since our political opposition is in a state of disarray, arguing about their Shadow Cabinet and the position of Deputy Prime Minister for Lim Kit Siang while Mahathir’s Bersatu is consorting with PAS. We deserve what is coming to us from Najib and his kleptos.–Din Merican

    • For the seemingly successful transition in Korea’s people power, we cannot ignore the contribution of Samsung’s heir as how he has added grease for the smooth transition.

      Behind America’s work of populism to have gotten Trump elected, we cannot ignore the irony of power of wealth inequality. When there are bigger wealth inequality, people there would yearn for a more equal society. For one who lives in an equally poor area, one would not mind the wealth disparity as long as it could bring hope to push the society forward that little bit.

      This picutre alone tells a lot how Americans voted, measured by Theil contribution.

      and contrast it with this

      I suspect the story is not so different in Malaysia.
      Bersatu should gather successful ‘Melayu’ yang bergaya to convince the rural to switch party. If DAP wanted to go beyond race, they too should do the same. They do have a popular self-made millionaire working hard in the party. I am quite sure he knows quite a few who are like him. I suspect many rural Malay may find him and his kind appealing.

      PS I am leaving behind the under-reported story of many Koreans are fervent Christians (which very likely leads to both the good and the bad of Korean politics).

  2. Bersih’s agenda for a Clean, Fair and Free Election and the hard-earned people power were being Hijacked and Weaken.l blame it’s leaders for allowing that to happen.

    People’s power works effectively when the TRUSTS of the people are Sustained.

    In S Korea,with the events , particularly the overdrive media coverage of the alleged Corruption charges against, my gut feeling is, there is a foreign power (conspired?) behind the people power, paving the path for Ban Ki Moon to be installed as the next President Park Geun-hye.

    Let’s wait and see.

  3. If we study the people power of South Korea in the early years, the Korean people were not afraid of violent suppression from their government. The Korean government has learned to work with the people who is not afraid to fight back.

    Malaysians? They are too meek. Here again I would like to stress the colonial education of rote learning perpetuated by the UMNO’s government, which produces meek followers and obedient citizens. The Malaysians are never taught critical thinking. They simply take all the shits the government feed them as a matter of fact.

    But the world is getting smaller. More and more Malaysians are travelling abroad to study, on business or vacation. They are learning more about the world through their internet. Malaysians will learn about their power and how to use their power. It is inevitable that UMNO will lose power one day.

    How soon? When Malaysians have learned not to let UMNO divide and conquer them by using one race against the other. When they are no longer afraid of all the guns UMNO owns and no longer afraid of violent suppression from UMNO.

  4. Bersih, as it stands is as effective as using a dry toothbrush to clean the dirt off the tires of a ten wheeled truck. And the reason is Malusians are generally apathetic with moral ethical values as rubbery and porous as their anus.

    It certainly doesn’t help – if the Oppo is downright stupid and self syioking, while the Goons are an Established Criminal Enterprise writ large, with reactive pea-brained enforcers. If the Goons are afraid of Cartoons, what kinda leaders do we have?

  5. In the above post, the whole paragraph 3
    should have read as :

    ” In S Korea, with the events unfolding over the past few months, particulatly the overdriven media coverage of the alleged Corruption charges against President Park Geun-hye, my gut feeling is, there is a big foreign power ( conspiring ?)behind the massive people’s power working the path for the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon to be installed as the next President of S. Korea. ”

    Error is regretted.

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