President's ouster caps months of discontent in South Korea, but will it change anything?
Long before a court ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office Friday in connection with a corruption scandal, many residents carried a growing list of complaints about their society.
The nation, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, has experienced slower economic growth, higher youth unemployment, rising income inequality and endemic collusion between leaders in business and government — all while internal critics complain that its dysfunctional democratic system seems incapable of reform.
These issues, among others, helped swell the crowds of millions who flooded the nation’s streets in recent months — as the burgeoning scandal that began last October mushroomed into a national crisis and, ultimately, the president’s removal.
Tens of thousands occupied a square in central Seoul on Friday to celebrate Park's removal, and officials say about 30 protesters and police officers have been hurt in violent clashes. Two men believed to be protesters died.
It's not clear that Park’s ouster will bring change to the troubled nation.
A day after the country’s constitutional court unanimously found that Park had “violated the duty to safeguard the nation,” South Korea analysts aren’t yet convinced, in part because of systemic challenges that won’t be affected by one impeached leader.
“Park became the focal point for a number of grievances that have been going on for decades,” said David Kang, an international relations professor at USC who directs the university’s Korean Studies Institute. “I don’t think I’ve seen any indication that Korean society, politics or business is going to change.”
South Koreans’ frustration with societal ills was perhaps why many national opinion surveys indicated that a large majority favored the president’s removal from office, if not her arrest, amid allegations that she participated in a bribery scheme with the country’s most powerful conglomerate, Samsung Group.
In impeaching Park last December, the National Assembly cited a list of allegations, including abuse of authority and influence peddling. But they also cited more political concerns, such as her handling of a ferry accident in 2014.
Park’s downfall began on Oct. 24, 2016, when a television network obtained a tablet computer with proof that a longtime Park confidante with no official role in government had edited her official speeches.
The revelation quickly turned into a massive corruption scandal that led to further disclosures that the confidante, Choi Soon-sil, used her influence with Park to extort money for her businesses from some large companies, including Samsung.
Prosecutors later arrested Samsung’s de facto leader, Lee Jae-yong, on bribery charges, alleging that he organized payments to Choi in an effort to gain support from Park for a controversial merger between two of his company’s affiliates. Authorities have also accused Park of bribery in the scheme, and she remains subject to legal action now that she’s lost the prosecutorial immunity that comes with the presidency.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who since December has stepped in as head of state during Park’s suspension, will continue leading the nation.
One possible place for substantive change after Park’s removal, of course, could be the presidency itself. Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, were members of the ruling conservative party, now known as Liberty Korea.
As the attention now turns to a special presidential election in early May, it’s possible that a more liberal candidate could win. Some, like Kang, believe that the conservatives have been “deeply hurt” by the scandal and could face a voter backlash.
An ideological shift at the top could have real implications for South Korean society, including how it deals with the advancing nuclear threat in North Korea and how it communicates with the Chinese, who have retaliated economically in frustration over Park’s plan to deploy an American anti-missile system.
“[Liberals] stand a good chance of winning and, if they win, would have a mandate — maybe not a sweeping one — to implement changes,” said Peter Kim, an assistant professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
A welcome change for some would be reforming the system to prevent less collusion between business titans and political leaders — a historic issue in South Korea that prosecutors cited in their investigative report in the Park case.
“There are relationships the public doesn’t see between politicians and corporations,” said Kim Chan Young, a student at Dongguk University in Seoul. “Presidential candidates are saying they will root out corruption, and I’m hoping that this will come true."
With her removal, Park — South Korea’s first female leader — also becomes the nation’s first president removed from office through impeachment. She repeatedly apologized — most recently for her “carelessness” — but never defended herself before prosecutors or the courts.
Her supporters, some of whom clashed violently with police after the ruling, may have projected on Park their nostalgia for the bygone era of her father, a former military dictator. His reign, in the 1960s and 1970s, is when the nation began to emerge from devastation and poverty after the Korean War and turn into an Asian economic powerhouse.
Her detractors may see her as a symbol of something else entirely.
“This impeachment proceeding somehow has become a referendum on the leadership of Korea for the dysfunction of the economy, politics and social cohesion, all embodied in the person of Park Geun-hye,” said Ryan Song, a law professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
The court’s ruling will have other consequences for the now-disgraced leader, who will be stripped of the $10,000 monthly pension afforded former presidents. She must also leave the presidential complex, known as the Blue House for its distinctly colored tile roof.
Park’s foreign media spokesman, D.J. Kim, said the former president planned to remain there at least until Saturday, citing the difficulty of travel in and around the complex because of the post-verdict protests. She has her own residence in Seoul’s posh Gangnam district, about eight miles to the south.
Park lived in the Blue House as a young woman, serving as de facto first lady after a North Korean sympathizer killed her mother in an ill-fated attempt on her father’s life. He was assassinated by his spy chief in 1979 — adding another layer of tragedy to her life.
After serving in the assembly and successfully working as a conservative party organizer, she narrowly won the presidency in 2012. But she never developed the ability to shape South Korea’s policy as did her famous father, Park Chung-hee.
Her tenure, even before the scandal, has been marked by controversy and hurt by what some observers say was a secretive and aloof governing style — a style perhaps learned by closely observing her father, who seized power in a coup and ruled as a strongman.
Other than the scandal, perhaps the defining moment of her time in office, however, was the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in which nearly 300 people — most of them high school students — perished when the vessel capsized en route to Jeju Island.
The incident, an intensely painful event for many South Koreans, led to widespread criticism by the public. Distraught parents pressed for a more robust investigation, and Park’s presidency never really recovered.
Questions about her whereabouts during a crucial seven-hour period during the disaster have further haunted her public image. Indeed, the court hearing the impeachment case demanded an accounting of the missing time. Park has refused to answer.
Woo Jiann, a student at Seoul National University who attended five anti-Park street rallies, cited the Sewol incident as one of her chief concerns about the ousted leader — and the nation’s “corrupt politics.” The week’s events give her hope, however.
“It’s the first time this has happened in the history of democracy,” she said of the presidential removal through impeachment. “And though it doesn’t feel real right now, I think it will have a positive effect on people.”
Stiles is a special correspondent.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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