But despite peaceful transition, questions remain about policy towards the North and chumminess with big business
The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye must be viewed within the context of East Asian tradition and the country’s three decades of remarkable progress as a democratic society. It was Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, who planted the roots of the nation’s rapid modern development. He ruled with an iron fist, but even as rights are suppressed, dictatorial regimes in Asia have often, through imposed discipline, ushered in periods of steady economic growth. The rise of the big corporations that helped fuel post-war prosperity in South Korea continues unabated to this day.
But clearly there are fatal flaws in the system. Park’s undoing stemmed from her relationship to well-connected businesswoman Choi Soon-sil, and when evidence emerged of the latter being involved in corruption, that personal connection irrevocably tainted the former. The exact nature of the complicated bond between Park and Choi is unclear, but it’s easy to see similarities between their political machinations and the situation in every other Asian country. Such long-standing connections between corporate interests and political figures have traditionally provided the foundation for meeting society’s needs.
Park all along pleaded innocence and denied allegations of corruption, but the constitutional court decided otherwise and upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her. It marked the end of an era in South Korean politics, and was all the more startling given Park’s dramatic rise to the presidency. Both of her parents were assassinated when she was still a child, and the personal fortitude that must have arisen from those traumas was clear in her stoic facial expression in every press photo of her seen in the past four years. Speculation is rife that Park was manipulated from the start by aides seeking to capitalise on her tragic past.
But Park’s impeachment can only buttress South Korean democracy. The day she became president, she declared that though she might be unmarried – a fact her election rivals tried to use to demean her – she was now “wed to the people”. It struck a chord and it raised citizens’ already high expectations even further. When that faith was undermined, public disillusionment boiled over into three months of protests conducted in such an orderly fashion, weekends only, that the world marvelled – surely a healthy exercise in democracy.
The demonstrators, all ages and all backgrounds, poured into the streets to show their disappointment with Park. The mood they conveyed was reflected in successive votes in parliament and the court, resulting in the termination of a presidency so peacefully that it bodes well for the coming transition of power. There wasn’t a hint of violence, a far cry from the bloody clashes of the past such as the Kwangju uprising in 1980. South Korean democracy has matured. Ordinary voters are smarter, unable to be fooled, and ready to become activists when needed. Elected officials who misbehave will be brought down.
It will be interesting to see what happens next. The coming leadership inherits a grave and delicate situation regarding newly belligerent North Korea and the anti-missile defence system the US is currently installing in the South. Park maintained a hard-line policy by which the Kim Jung-un regime was isolated. The presidential candidates waiting in the wings have intimated different approaches, some preferring engagement with the North to ease tensions, others firmly opposed to the US defence shield as being too provocative, possibly triggering economic retaliation from Beijing.
The next president obviously will have to tread carefully in dealing with large corporations as well. As essential as they are to the economy, they cannot be best friends with politics.