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South Koreans Can’t Agree What Democracy Is
The impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye hasn't healed the country's deep divides.
On March 10, South Korea’s Constitutional Court rendered its most important decision since its founding in 1988. The court’s eight judges unanimously voted to remove President Park Geun-hye from office, citing abuse of power and permitting a private citizen, her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, to meddle in state affairs. The former president was impeached by the legislature on Dec. 9, following revelations that Park had consulted Choi on state matters and used her presidential influence to secure millions of dollars in donations from the country’s largest conglomerates, including Samsung, for two nonprofit organizations run by Choi.
Following the court’s decision, the acting president and Park-appointed prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, said in a public broadcast: “It’s time to end conflict and confrontation.” But that will be far easier said than done. Park’s scandal did much more than end her career. It has ruptured some of the most powerful institutions in Korean society and put the country in an unprecedented constitutional, social, and political crisis.
A snap election must take place within 60 days, likely on May 9, to replace Park. Until then, Hwang, who has been the unelected head of state since Park’s impeachment, will keep the position. Legally, the extent of Hwang’s authority is clear: He can exercise all the powers reserved for the president. In practice, however, Hwang is expected to do nothing more than act as a caretaker. Aside from a few minor appointments, Hwang has embraced his limited role, even deciding to leave a vacancy on the Constitutional Court (which usually has nine judges) rather than name a replacement.
In the event of a major crisis, such as a military confrontation, Hwang would be expected to serve in the same commander-in-chief role as an elected president — at least in theory. In practice, his authority to preside over the military chain of command is questionable. That could prove tempting for a hostile North Korean neighbor always willing to push Seoul’s buttons.
It doesn’t help Hwang’s credibility that the main opposition Minjoo Party, the liberal party with the most seats in the legislature, declared at the end of February its intent to see Hwang impeached for his refusal to grant a special prosecutor the right to continue its probe into the corruption scandal. That the conservative party has split — leaving two conservative parties at the moment — further undermines the acting president.
The only likely way for South Korea to overcome its authority deficit is through the legitimacy-conferring power of a free and fair election. Hwang is the most popular conservative presidential hopeful, according to polls. The man to save the conservative movement was thought to be Ban Ki-moon, the former U.N. secretary-general, but he dropped his bid for president shortly after indicating his intent to run. In the void left by Ban’s abrupt and still unexplained departure, Hwang is expected to announce his candidacy soon as the most popular among possible conservative candidates remaining. (Before Hwang declares, he’ll have to resign from his position. If he steps down, the position of acting head of state will be passed to Deputy Prime Minister Yoo Il-ho, a lawmaker for the breakaway conservative Liberty Korea Party and minister of strategy and finance. He would be expected to serve in the same limited capacity as Hwang.)
With an election near, the deep social and political divides that have defined the country since its emergence from autocracy in the 1980s are showing. Korea is cleaved between conservative and progressive parties and their respective social movements that often organize street protests. The conservative movement is defined by its anti-communist (read: anti-North Korea) roots and its strong stance on national security. Liberal progressives draw their legitimacy from the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, from which many in their ranks hail, and opposition to authoritarian rule. Conservatives often attack liberals as being soft on security and even “pro-North Korea” sympathizers, while liberals accuse conservatives of undemocratic behavior.
South Korea’s national identity divide has been on display throughout the impeachment process. Those who opposed the impeachment think it’s little more than a political ploy by liberals to discredit conservatives. The most extreme conservative position sees it as a move to weaken South Korea vis-à-vis the North. On the same day as the verdict, Cho Gab-je, a hard-right conservative and former editor of Chosun Monthly, tweeted the following: “A person who fights communism is a democrat!” Video of clashes with reporters and chants imploring people to “dismantle the Constitutional Court” shed light on this perspective and have led some to question whether people will accept the ruling.
Opposition parties are concerned that those on the far-right may not go along with the court’s decision. “We are concerned about the aftermath rather than the trial itself,” Minjoo Party lawmaker Woo Sang-ho told Yonhap News Agency. Such concerns are not without warrant. After clashes with police following the court’s decision, pro-Park protesters are planning further protest action.
Those who supported Park Geun-hye until the bitter end are mostly in their 60s or over, meaning they came of age during Korea’s economic boom, when Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was dictator and the future of South Korea as a sovereign state far from certain. Bulwark conservatives and staunch anti-communists, they represent a substantial part of the conservative party’s electoral base and are a politically active group. Many of them are worried that the impeachment process has undermined the republic. These are voters most supportive of a hard-line approach to North Korea, which former President Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, pursued. At protests, they waved Korean and American flags, and after the court ruling, they were heard signing the national anthem. The message from this group is clear: We’re the true patriots here.
Disagreements over Park’s impeachment and removal from office are indicative of substantive generational differences. Available survey data for South Korea show that Koreans who came of age under autocracy are less supportive of democracy and more likely to agree that military involvement in politics is sometimes necessary.
Indeed, Koreans who spent their formative years in another autocracy seem to share similar feelings. In 2016, I interviewed more than 100 North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South as part of a collaborative research project on Korean identity. While the vast majority spoke highly of South Korea’s political system overall, and especially the freedoms they now enjoy, more than a few commented that democracy is unnervingly chaotic. Many older South Koreans feel the same way. The impeachment of Park in their eyes is not a democratic triumph but a slide into anarchy. To outsiders looking in, pro-Parkers may seem like a group out of touch with reality, but their concerns will resonate with many voters.
In the run-up to the snap presidential election, conservatives and liberals will use rhetoric representative of their respective visions for the country’s identity and its future. Conservatives will emphasize the need for domestic and regional stability and a strong stance on security. Korea’s conservatism may have taken a hit with Park’s removal from office, but it isn’t dead. There is a reason Moon Jae-in, the probable liberal presidential candidate, is making a conscious effort to frame himself as mindful of security concerns. Look for conservatives to point to China’s aggressive response to the rollout of the U.S.-built THAAD missile defense system as evidence that South Korea needs a leader who will stand up to foreign pressure, strengthen the U.S.-Korea alliance, and, possibly, forge a more cooperative relationship with Tokyo.
Liberals, on the other hand, will emphasize the need for responsible political leadership and a restoration of Korean democracy after four years (nine, if they include former President Lee Myung-bak) of corruption, as well as a fresh approach to the country’s relationship with China, Japan, and the United States. Liberals like Moon and others from his generation are seen as being supportive of engagement with North Korea and skeptical of closer ties to the United States. Moon has voiced his support of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but in the not-so-distant past he voiced opposition to a quick deployment of THAAD. The geopolitical environment is significantly different than it was the last time liberals held power (2003-2008, under Roh Moo-hyun), but we can expect the deeply held beliefs of liberals to result in significantly, but not drastically, different foreign policies.
Whoever emerges as South Korea’s new president will have great expectations placed on him (there are no female candidates, yet): restore trust and confidence in the executive branch and return politics to a state of normalcy. From there, the new president and his administration will go on to confront problems of rising youth unemployment and economic malaise, a strained relationship with Beijing, and a nuclear North Korea. Park’s impeachment may give the new president a clean slate to work from — but it could also permanently burden him with a legacy of corruption at the top and division at the bottom. Either way, the next election may be among the most consequential, for both the country and the region, in Korea’s history.
Photo Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images