February 1, 2017
Democracy — People Power in South Korea
by Kim Kee-seok
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.
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.
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.