This was not supposed to happen in South Korea. It was too divided, too corrupt, too much in thrall to the rich and powerful who’d always had their way.
SEOUL, South Korea — This was not supposed to happen in South Korea. It was too divided, too corrupt, too much in thrall to the rich and powerful who’d always had their way.
Four months ago, the idea that the country’s leader, along with the cream of South Korean business and politics, would be knocked from command after sustained, massive, peaceful protests would have been ludicrous.
Now Park Geun-hye, thanks to a court ruling Friday, is no longer president and may very well face criminal extortion and other charges. The head of the country’s biggest company, Samsung, sits in jail, when he’s not in a courtroom facing trial for bribery and embezzlement linked to the corruption scandal that felled Park. And a Who’s Who of once untouchables languishes behind bars waiting for their day in court.
This swift upending of the status quo has so shaken the country’s foundations that it has left people here a bit stunned.
Now comes the hard part.
South Koreans will look to take their peaceful revolution — and the genuine sense of empowerment that many of the average citizens who took to the streets in protest, week after week, now feel at their accomplishment — and turn it into lasting progress.
Among the first of the many big, uneasy questions that linger over this enterprise: What happens next?
In the short term, at least, the answer is more politics, and of the lightning-quick variety. Half a dozen or so candidates will now scramble, over the next two months, for a shot at becoming the next president of South Korea. Elections will likely come May 9.
The current smart money is on a liberal — Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in 2012 and who now leads in early polls — but conservatives, though in disarray and currently viewed as toxic by many South Koreans of all political stripes, still have strong bastions of support in the country’s south, if a charismatic candidate arises.
The qualities of the next leader will help answer another fundamental question: Will the confidence that many won from South Korea’s version of “people power” last?
South Korea is no stranger to rapid, intense change. The country whiplashed from Japan’s colonization to total war in the 1950s, to an economic “miracle” of rebuilding supported by a brutal dictatorship, to one of the world’s most successful democracies.
Just below the surface have always lurked deep social and political divisions — between conservative and liberal, rich and poor, men and women. The entrenched elite often seemed to just chug along, untouched. If they did topple from power or privilege, it was because of violent change, when the streets filled with tear gas and riots, not, as in past months, singing, smiling families of all social classes and political backgrounds.
Park’s fall may have shattered that pattern.
Among the changes: an energized citizenry who can now point to concrete proof that they can make a real difference when they’re united, and an eagerness among civic groups to build on their ability to turn popular anger into peaceful protests that actually worked.
There’s no guarantee that any of this will last.
“Now is a critical transition moment,” said John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. “Starting tomorrow, the question is, where does all this energy go? The unifying factor was a focus on getting rid of a problem. Now, they have to figure out, how do you turn that energy into something more constructive than destructive?”
If Moon, the leading liberal candidate, wins the presidency, one big change could be North Korea.
Moon was an aide in the 2000s to late liberal President Roh Moo-hyun who pursued the so-called Sunshine Policy. This rapprochement effort with the North included big trade and cultural exchanges, and was criticized, and later scrapped, by conservatives because Pyongyang was simultaneously expanding its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.
Moon as president would push for more dialogue with the North and would likely reopen an industrial park in the North that was jointly run by the Koreas before Park closed it last year following a nuclear test and long-range rocket launch by Pyongyang.
The reaction to this possible new approach from conservatives in Japan and the United States, and, indeed, from the numerous South Koreans who distrust Pyongyang, will be just one of many unknowns that will play out as South Korea enters this new political realm.
Whoever leads will have an unusually strong mandate in what has typically been a starkly divided country.
For this momentum to last, South Koreans may have to resist a natural urge to relax, to bask.
One conservative newspaper, the Herald Business, likened what South Koreans have just gone through to the chaos at the end of World War II, when the Korean Peninsula was liberated from Japanese rule and then divided by U.S. and Soviet forces.
The paper suggested in a Friday editorial that people should “calmly return to their daily lives.”
The next months will see if a newly inspired public, fresh off of flooding the nation’s streets until their leaders acted, embrace that advice.
Foster Klug, AP’s Seoul bureau chief, has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him at www.twitter.com/apklug
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
- Little-known governor runs as the hope and change candidate in South Korea
- N. Korean leader’s half brother killed in Malaysia in possible poison attack, police say
- Will South Korea's impeached president be removed from office? Court to announce verdict Friday
- President's ouster caps months of discontent in South Korea, but will it change anything?
- THAAD missile defense system arrives in South Korea
- South Korea: Court upholds President Park's impeachment; protests erupt
- Hundreds of 'blacklisted' artists plan to sue South Korea
- Park Geun-hye: Downfall of South Korea's political princess
- South Korea's president may get tossed out of office on Friday — here's what you need to know
- The heir to the Samsung empire denies all charges against him as the 'trial of the century' begins
- South Korean president removed from office
- South Korea's president formally ousted by court
You might also like
- Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies host and film historian, dies at 84
- Are baby boomers too old to ski? Probably not.
- With allergy season around the corner, educate yourself now
- Butter or olive oil? Eggs or no? New nutritional review cuts through the myths.
- Every traveler’s eternal question: ‘It’s 2017, why don’t we have WiFi on all planes?’
- These activists want greater home-school monitoring. Parent groups say no way.
- Tired of people asking where you’re going to college? Here’s what to say.
- Perspective | Ask Amy: Woman reels from memories of tough childhood
- DC Theater Friday: Selections begin with ‘The Select’
- Paris gets Hadid-mania, as Saab and Mugler channel dark, 80s
- Perspective | Trump’s first D.C. dinner as president: An overcooked, $54 steak. With ketchup.
- Booker T. Jones, on the Stax Records soul sound he helped create
- Powerful South Carolina political consultant implicated in indictments of a veteran state senator
- Will Donald Trump get a second Supreme Court nomination?
- "Hazing" rituals await Supreme Court's "junior justice" Neil Gorsuch
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Trump approves controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline
- Trump praises 'Fox & Friends,' renews old feuds in early morning tweets
- Rex Tillerson finally answers question from NBC News' Andrea Mitchell
- First Read's Morning Clips: The Latest in the Russia Investigation
- Spicer: 'I've let the president down'
- Russian President Vladimir Putin met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday
- OMB Diriector Mick Mulvaney: Washington's 'a lot more broken' than Trump thought
- Trump attacks conservatives over failure of health care bill
- A very consequential week didn't go well for President Trump
- Health Care Showdown: Republicans look to go big or go home
- No deal on health care bill after conservatives meet with Trump
- CA gov on those supporting health bill: 'Their name is going to be mud'
- Give it to me straight, doc: Is Obamacare dying?
- First Read's Morning Clips: Waiting for CBO
- 14 People Share What's It's Really Like to Have An Ex Who Is Now Their In-Law
- The Internet Is Freaking Out About The Way This Chef Cuts Pizza
- The hunt is on for Planet Nine. Here's how to join it
- Israeli prime minister talks of a snap election amid concerns over a new public broadcaster
- U.S. condemns suspected Syrian chemical attack on civilians, but says the Assad government is a 'political reality'
- Canada's largest school board will end class trips to the U.S. due to Trump's travel restrictions
- Warplanes strike Syrian town already hit by chemical attack
- Vigilantes prowl Europe's border with a target: Muslim migrants
- A letter from Britain to the European Union will trigger the 'Brexit' process March 29
- Ukraine president suggests a Kremlin-orchestrated attack after former Russian lawmaker is shot dead in Kiev
- Russian officials say St. Petersburg subway blast killed at least 11 and injured dozens
- As death toll in hospital attack soars to 50, Afghanistan investigates whether it was an inside job
- South Korea's ousted leader moves out of palace, apologizes for 'not fulfilling my duties'
- A brazen political killing shakes Myanmar, already teetering on the path to democracy
- India's Narendra Modi leads his party to victory in a state with more than 200 million people
- A controversial Thai monk is wanted in connection with a fraud case. His followers won't give him up
- Another Dalit suicide on campus raises fears of a crisis of discrimination at Indian universities
- Syrian government insists it does not use chemical weapons; US vows serious response to attack
- Bodies of U.N. workers and interpreter found in Congo, prompting calls for investigation
- Hamas hangs 3 Palestinians in Gaza it says were collaborating with Israel
- Basque group ETA hands over weapons, ammunition and explosives to France
- Syrian ally Iran blasts U.S. missile strikes as 'dangerous, destructive and a violation of international law'