For the sake of Korea, President Park Geun-hye must go now

12-Dec-2016 Intellasia | Theguardian | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Today South Korea’s national assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach President Park Geun-hye. The unexpectedly decisive margin – 234 votes to 56 – means half of Park’s own conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) party, as well as the centre-left opposition, backed the move.

Impeachment is a momentous step, but lawmakers are only echoing the voice of the people, which has been loud and clear. Recent weeks have seen Park’s support in opinion polls sink to an unheard-of low of 4%. On the streets, for six successive Saturdays, millions have demonstrated – peacefully, which is a welcome change in Seoul – for her to resign or be impeached.

Why? Because of a sordid scandal, still unfolding. The plot is complex, but briefly Park is charged with being in thrall to an old friend, Choi Soon-sil. Without security clearance or any official position, Choi and her cronies allegedly rewrote the president’s speeches, chose her wardrobe, ran cultural policy, and used their clout to shake down mighty multinationals such as Hyundai and Samsung for “donations” to two dodgy foundations set up by Choi.

Samsung gave a prize horse to Choi’s daughter, an equestrian who also got top grades at a prestigious university despite poor attendance and performance. The college head has resigned. All this is now subject to four separate inquiries.

On 6 December Koreans enjoyed the rare sight of secretive tycoons being grilled by parliament for three hours, live on television. If that seemed little more than reality TV, the serious work behind the scenes is being done by two teams of prosecutors. The state prosecution service has arraigned Choi and others for multiple counts – and formally charged Park as an accomplice, which is unprecedented.

A sitting president cannot face criminal prosecution – but after leaving office that rule no longer applies. Separately, the national assembly has appointed its own special counsel, whose 100-strong team has up to three months to investigate.

And now, impeachment means Park ceases her duties – she pretty much had already – while the constitutional court deliberates. That could take six months, and the outcome is far from certain, given the court’s conservative bias. Six out of nine judges must back impeachment or else it fails, and Park will return to finish her five-year term. She barely has a year left anyway: her successor is set to be elected in December 2017, and will take office in February 2018.

Months of government paralysis thus loom, and at a bad time. Against a backdrop of low growth, high youth unemployment and surging household debt loom two global challenges. First, North Korea, whose glee at Park’s fate is unrestrained, may use the South’s weakness to risk some new provocation. Recently Pyongyang allegedly hacked into a southern military intranet.

And then there is Donald Trump. He has upbraided South Korea in the past, trashing a trade deal and telling Seoul to pay for more of its own defence. He also said he might talk to Kim Jong-un over hamburgers.

This is no time for the ship of state to drift rudderless. Park’s impeachment puts the prime minister in charge. In South Korea’s imperial presidency, the premier is little more than chief cook and bottle-washer. The incumbent – Hwang Kyo-ahn, a former prosecutor whom Park has already tried to replace – is contentious and unimpressive, and has faced ethical accusations.

Park Geun-hye: South Korean MPs vote to impeach president

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It’s all a terrible mess. But it would have been less so, and still could be, if only Park Geun-hye had seen the writing on the wall and stepped down. A simple resignation would mean a new presidential election within 60 days. The squabbling and divided liberal opposition is unready, much less the conservatives. But they would just have to get their act together. That way, within weeks South Korea would have what it sorely needs and currently lacks: a fully functioning new government with a fresh popular mandate. Whereas this way, months of contested ambiguity loom.

No one can fathom what Park thinks she may gain by clinging grimly on. If the constitutional court rejects her impeachment, I fear the hitherto peaceful streets of Seoul will erupt in fury. For her country’s sake, as well as her own, Park must prolong the agony no further. She should simply go, and go now.


Category: Korea

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