In Korean Democracy, the People Are a Wrathful God

Koreans demanded, and received, the impeachment of their president. But there's a thin line between the collective will and mob rule.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in central Seoul on November 5, 2016.
Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets November 5 to demand embattled President Park Geun-Hye resign over a crippling corruption scandal.
 / AFP / Ed JONES        (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest calling for the resignation of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in central Seoul on November 5, 2016. Thousands of South Koreans took to the streets November 5 to demand embattled President Park Geun-Hye resign over a crippling corruption scandal. / AFP / Ed JONES (Photo credit should read ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

The preamble to the Constitution notwithstanding, “We the People” don’t exactly rule in the United States. A legal document, the Constitution, looms godlike over the affairs of Americans. Some form of that goes for most democracies. The laws are in charge, not the public — at least not directly.

South Korea presents an unusual case — and last week’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye is a case in point — of a country where the rulers and the ruled not only believe that the people exist but in fact accept that the people, or some mystical conception of their collective will, are directly in charge.

This notion lies behind the country’s feisty politics and helps explain why it is, arguably, the most directly democratic country in Asia. Whether that’s a good thing or not depends on how much you trust the people’s spontaneous collective judgment.

The idea of the people being in charge seems easy to understand, but it is actually difficult to grasp, and accept as valid, when you come from a more law-based version of democracy.

Thus, for foreign correspondents in Seoul, where for the past few weekends hundreds of thousands of protestors have flooded the boulevards in the city center near the presidential Blue House, the events can be difficult to make sense of. Already a narrative is falling into place whereby the downfall of Park, who was impeached by Korea’s parliament on Dec. 9, is seen as having resulted from lawbreaking. This argues that it started with statements by prosecutors that she allowed her best friend to shake down Samsung and other conglomerates and edit confidential drafts of presidential speeches in violation of secrecy rules.

But actually the downfall of Korea’s sixth democratically elected president was triggered by something else.

It was We the People. They got angry because of a TV report that said their president was being manipulated and essentially being told what to do by a lady who was completely unknown to the public. A few weeks later, the president has been impeached. If Korea’s democracy were as law-based as that of the United States, the process would have been like the two long years of Watergate investigations. She would have hung on until her term ended in February 2018.

So, what is the nature of this people power?

In Korea, when popular feeling pushes past a certain limit break, it warps into a beast that is powerful enough to rip through decision-making and the established law.

Koreans call it “public sentiment.” This is as tame an expression in Korean as it is in English and does not convey the underlying phenomenon. A more accurate phrase would be “the emotion of the masses” or “mob passion.” But these have negative connotations, and public sentiment for Koreans is anything but negative.

It is the collective soul, and it is considered supreme. Koreans even have a saying about it: “The law of public sentiment is above the law.”

The Korean notion of democracy puts the people first. The unspoken deal with presidents, for example, is that the people choose someone to preside over public events, hobnob with foreign dignitaries, and generally get to feel as if she’s important.

But she’s there to do the bidding of “public sentiment.” As Kim Dae-jung, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president, used to say: “The people are God” — a God whom the Korean president is expected to honor.

The Korean president’s role as an object of public emotion is a function of the office’s enormous powers. By contrast, the prime minister, who in theory runs the cabinet, is a symbolic figure. Ask any Korean at any time who the prime minister is, and more than half of them won’t know. The National Assembly — Korea’s parliament — has a role to check the workings of the government and pass laws but is mainly seen, in this picture of the Korean power structure, as a forum in which future presidents jostle and posture.

It is the president who rules, and she does so because the people have put her there. The reason the beast has been awoken to fury now is because Park strayed onto the path of heresy. She put her friend Choi Soon-sil up on the altar and bowed down before her, not the people – and in doing so, she broke the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

This theology makes for powerful feelings, which is why, a few days after the reports about Choi’s influence broke and when foreign observers were still bewildered, those with Korean spouses or friends — who were liable to be screaming at the TV — knew that Park was done for.

And when the beast is in charge, the authorities follow. Decision-making, whether it is moved by lawmakers, investigations by prosecutors, or probes by tax officials, comes in response to the perceived orders of the people, as expressed in a mixture of street protest, online commentary, and newspaper stories on a certain scale.

In 2007, after Seung-hui Cho, a Korean-born American resident and student in the United States, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 more in a shooting spree on the campus of Virginia Tech, the assumption in Korea was that public sentiment in America would rise up, make George W. Bush’s administration drop its consideration of a visa waiver program for Koreans, and force Congress to vote down the free trade agreement that had just been negotiated between the two countries.

That’s because that is the kind of reaction seen in Korea when the story is the other way around. In 2002, for example, after a horrible traffic accident in which two schoolgirls were run over and killed by an American military vehicle, tens of thousands of protestors came out day after day, demanding that the drivers be jailed for murder. The crowds believed the killing had been deliberate.

In 2008, similar numbers protested when the government lifted restrictions on U.S. beef imports, some years after an outbreak of mad cow disease. Schoolchildren joined the protests in the thousands, believing that America was sending beef to Korean school canteens that was unfit for consumption in America itself.

The United States, of course, is too close an ally for the government to feel pushed to do anything drastic like close down U.S. military bases. And anyway, that is not what public sentiment wants. I learned this during the 2002 protests when U.S. newspapers suggested that perhaps if we’re not wanted, we should leave. That led to renewed anti-American protests — this time America’s offense was failure to understand anti-Americanism. Korean protestors wanted the United States to stay, but they wanted American troops to act with more respect toward them.

Such protests did not lead to U.S. base closures, because that is not want the protestors wanted, but they did lead to an increased willingness by the U.S. military in Korea to hand over soldiers who commit crimes to Korean courts rather than handling them in U.S. military tribunals. It also led to a number of outreach programs that have resulted in vastly improved relations.

In Korea, there is an enormous level of public pressure on legal judgments. We can say with some certainty, for example, that regardless of what Park has or hasn’t done, she will end up in jail. The law is sufficiently open to interpretation for prosecutors to make a case when public sentiment is driving an issue. Where it’s not, they can resort to other means — like leniency deals with peripheral presidential aides if they agree to the prosecutor’s scenario.

And when that doesn’t work, prosecutors drag out the process so that by the time of the final appeal, public sentiment has moved on and a not-guilty verdict or a light punishment does not upset anyone too much. Koreans have an expression that covers this — “beat a coat and the dust will fall out” — meaning that an investigation will produce something to get the victim on, however unrelated to the original impetus behind the investigation.

That, of course, is not to say Park is not guilty of anything. The point is that at this stage, even though she has been impeached, the evidence is still opaque and she’s had little chance to offer a serious defense. But that hasn’t stopped the public from declaring her guilty.

The beast of public sentiment doesn’t pause to think. When the story broke in late October, the image that led Koreans to think that their president had broken trust with them and belonged in a psychiatric ward was of an elderly single woman, estranged from her siblings, who had been passively taking orders from a manipulative best friend. The public immediately exploded in fury and demanded that she step down to make way for a proper leader.

But then something interesting happened. As the story unfolded, the growing evidence — mostly in the form of information coming out of the prosecutor’s office but also some investigative work by newspapers — quickly altered that original picture of a docile Park.

Now, the focus is on whether Park directed Choi and benefitted herself from Choi’s leveraging of her relationship with the center of power. And that turns the story into something far more routine for Korean presidents: good old-fashioned corruption. Of the six previous presidents, two have been jailed for corruption, among other charges; one committed suicide thereby ending the investigation; and two saw family members jailed for exerting undue influence. (The difference in these cases from Park’s was that despite rumors and suspicions, the cases were not fully revealed until after the president had stepped down.)

But public sentiment, once inflamed, does not concern itself with such details. Once the story is out, it is up to the authorities to do their part, find the president guilty, and get rid of her.

The beast will not be denied.

Photo credit: ED JONES/Getty Images

Michael Breen is the author of The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation to be published in April 2017.

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