South Korea Treads Uncertain Path with Park Impeachment

South Korean President Park Geun-hye bows during an address to the nation. Seoul, South Korea, November 29, 2016. (Associated Press)

South Korea’s National Assembly voted today to impeach President Park Geun-hye following questions over her role in a corruption scandal involving several charges of violating the country’s constitution. These include accusations of bribery, coercion, and leaking confidential state information. The result is a success for popular protest but leaves significant questions over South Korea’s future leadership and foreign policy in particular.

The impeachment will be reviewed by the country’s Constitutional Court, a process which could take several months. As of now, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will take up Park’s duties. Park’s implication largely involved ties to a family friend, Choi Soon-sil, who has neither an official position in the government nor security clearance. Yet reports have indicated that she extensively reviewed confidential state documents including important policy speeches and at least one itinerary of an overseas trip.

The decision follows months of mounting protests, including six weeks of demonstrations reportedly including as many as a million people marching on Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun Square, in front of the president’s residence. The protests are the largest since South Korea’s democratization movement in the 1987.

Under the national constitution, the president is immune to criminal charges other than treason or insurrection, but Park could face charges after leaving office (whether at the end of her term or through impeachment). On November 20, state prosecutors indicted Choi on charges of abuse of power, coercion, attempted coercion, and attempted fraud; the prosecutors also indicated that Park is a suspect and subject to investigation as a co-conspirator.

The public initially viewed Choi with suspicion regarding her undue influence over Korean politics, concerns that turned out to be much more pervasive and serious, particularly given revelations of Choi’s financial benefit from her clout with the president. Choi has reportedly used her influence to extort money and favors from big firms and other organizations in Korea.

Two foundations run by Choi, Mir and K-Sports, raised nearly $68 million from the country’s large conglomerates, including Samsung and Hyundai. Nine business leaders appeared at the National Assembly hearing on Tuesday to answer questions about the donations, which they testified were not given in exchange for favors, though opposition lawmakers remained doubtful. Choi’s family has also allegedly received favorable treatment. Her daughter, for example, was recently found to have graduated high school based on fabricated grades and attendance records.

Park has so far offered three public apologies, on October 25, November 4, and November 29. These efforts, which were called “partial apologies” in Korean media and mostly referred to mismanaging her staff, have failed to temper public outrage. In her November 29 address, Park said she would step down prior to her term ending in early 2018 if the National Assembly devises a transition plan.

Many in the Korean public view Park as disconnected, debating policies in closed-door meetings with advisers and avoiding public debate. Since coming into office in early 2013, she has faced growing criticism for bungling several national incidents. In April 2014, the sinking of the Sewol ferry that resulted in over 300 South Korean passengers dead or missing, most of them schoolchildren on a field trip, led to accusations of an inept government response. Large protests and a two-year sit-in aimed at the government as a whole and the Park administration in particular has stood in Gwanghwamun Square.

The administration drew further criticism following a high-profile bribery scandal connected to then Prime Minister Lee Wan-koo in April 2015, which culminated in his resignation. Park’s public approval rating dropped to 50% a few months following the ferry incident. The recent scandal (called “Choi-gate” in Korean) saw Park’s approval rating plummet. It now rests at an incredible low of 4%.

The impeachment scandal will continue to resonate throughout South Korea’s politics, society, and economy. It has decimated the Park administration’s domestic credibility. The executive administration of the country is in further question, given the widespread distrust across the political spectrum. National Assembly members of Park’s ruling conservative party even joined the vote to impeach her.

The scandal may also rock some of the foreign policy decisions promoted by Park’s administration. Bilateral relations with Japan are often difficult, given public mistrust based on the historical memory of the country’s colonization of Korea. The Park administration summoned the political will necessary to push forward on some difficult agreements. Most recently, Japan and South Korea signed a long-debated arrangement for information-sharing on potential North Korean threats. But the decision has been controversial in South Korea. The agreement was set to be signed in 2012 but was postponed due to strong opposition.

Japan also fears that the 2015 agreement to resolve the issue of wartime sexual slavery (known euphemistically as “comfort women”) could be jeopardized by the scandal. The issue required much political will by the Park administration, as issues relating to Japan’s colonization of Korea are sensitive among the public in both countries.

The July 2016 decision to deploy a United States-backed missile defense system in response to the North Korean threat, which attracted the ire of Beijing, might also be at risk. Opposition lawmakers opposed the deployment and there may be pathways to reverse the decision if it is put up for a referendum vote. This would be particularly well-received in China, which feels that South Korea has turned away from previously warm bilateral relations.

There may be political advantages for politicians across party lines to distance themselves from the Park administration’s decisions, particularly the controversial ones outlined above. Moreover, further questions will arise depending on whether a conservative or progressive president is elected in 2017. A progressive administration is likely to shy away from Park’s hardline stance against North Korea. The longer implications of key issues will largely depend on the shape of the government in the next year.

Darcie Draudt is a PhD student in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and a non-resident James A. Kelly Korean Studies Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.