How to Impeach a President (in Korea)

Democrats brought down a wannabe dictator in Seoul. The same tactics can work in Washington.

A candlelight protest in Seoul
Protesters attend a candlelight rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye's impeachment in downtown Seoul on Dec. 31, 2016. Jeon Yung-Ye/AFP/Getty Images

It was a political crisis like no other: The conservative president publicly admitted to having committed a crime, somehow thinking the admission was exculpatory. Yet the liberal party was being timid, despite having the popular mandate from a landslide victory in the midterm election. The calls for impeachment were getting louder, but the majority leader was hesitant—the party might have the majority but not enough votes to see the process through.

U.S. politics in September 2019? No, this was the situation in South Korea in December 2016 as the bizarre corruption scandal involving a shaman’s daughter was beginning to unravel Park Geun-hye’s presidency.

For a Korean American with center-left politics like myself, the past several years of Donald Trump’s presidency have been a horror movie version of Groundhog Day. The parallels between the presidencies of Park and Trump have been numerous and uncanny. Like Trump, Park squeaked out an unexpected victory with no small help from an online psy-op campaign run by a spy agency. (Not the Russian kind, to be sure—South Korea’s own spy agency intervened in the presidential election.) On taking office, Park began appointing clearly unqualified media personalities as presidential advisors and spokespeople. She developed a cult of personality to a point that she had a “concrete floor” of support: Around 35 percent of her constituents would support her even if she shot a person in the middle of the busiest street in Seoul.

Now, the good news: I have seen this movie before, and it has a happy ending. Against all odds, Park was impeached and removed—although the opposition Democratic Party did not have enough votes. The way in which South Korea’s liberals pulled this off can serve as a road map for the Democratic Party in the United States.

To be sure, the impeachment processes are not identical. South Korea’s legislature, the National Assembly, has a single chamber with 300 members. The National Assembly may move to impeach the president with more than two-thirds of its members—in other words, 201 votes or more in favor. Once the impeachment motion is approved, the impeachment trial is held before the Constitutional Court. Despite the word “court” in the name, the Constitutional Court is not a part of the judiciary; rather, it is a nine-member council that presides over the three branches of the government, deciding matters of constitutional importance. If six or more justices of the Constitutional Court vote to sustain the impeachment motion, the president is removed from the office.

But despite these differences, Woo Sang-ho—then-assembly leader of South Korea’s Democratic Party—faced the same issue as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: He did not have enough votes. Just as with Trump, the indications of Park’s wrongdoings were everywhere from the very beginning of her presidency in 2012. In April 2016, Woo’s Democratic Party became the majority party in the National Assembly elections as the steady drip feed of scandals eroded Park’s support.

Then the big scandal broke: On Oct. 24, 2016, the cable TV network JTBC reported on a tablet PC belonging to Park’s spiritual advisor Choi Soon-sil, which contained an edited presidential speech. It was the smoking gun proving the rumor that most Koreans dismissed as too outlandish: that Choi, whose only qualification was the fact that her father claimed to speak with the president’s dead mother, was running a shadow government that peddled influence. Park, in her characteristic obliviousness, held a press conference and admitted that Choi reviewed the speeches, defending Choi as someone who “helped” her “during the difficult past.” Outraged, hundreds of thousands of Koreans began gathering in weekly candlelight protests, demanding the Democrats impeach Park. Yet Park’s Saenuri Party still held 122 votes in the legislature. To safely get over 201 votes, Woo needed nearly a quarter of the conservatives to defect.

The way Woo pulled it off was a masterclass on legislative maneuvering. The first critical decision Woo made was not to bring the impeachment motion prematurely. This exposed him to a great deal of criticism, much like that Pelosi faced from progressive Democrats. But South Korea’s Democratic leadership knew that enough conservatives were close to defecting. Like Trump, Park began as a minority faction within the conservatives and then gradually strengthened her hold over the party. The establishment conservatives who lost out in this power struggle—such as Kim Moo-sung, the former chairman of the Saenuri Party (and the star of this viral video)—were close to jumping ship. An overly aggressive and hostile approach risked a visceral reaction among these conservatives, causing them to recommit with the president.

The Democrats moved slowly instead. Woo asked major liberal leaders such as Moon Jae-in to refrain from weighing in, to avoid the appearance of excess partisanship. Rather than heading straight to an impeachment vote, Woo offered Park a compromise: take an informal step back without formally resigning. Since the next presidential election was less than a year away, the Democrats could appoint the cabinet and run the government in the meantime.

It was a finely crafted poison pill: To the general public, it appeared to be a reasonable enough offer for a president whose approval rating had crashed to a single digit. But it was clear that Park could not accept the offer; if she handed over the government’s reins, the Justice Ministry was likely to prosecute her cronies and eventually herself. Much like Trump, Park had no interest in securing the future of conservative politics—saving herself and her cronies was her only goal.

When Park’s Blue House rejected the compromise on Nov. 9, her defiance triggered an even stronger reaction from the public. The third candlelight protest on Nov. 12 climbed to over a million attendees; the fifth protest on Nov. 26 attracted close to 2 million. The ever-increasing size of the protests applied an enormous pressure to wavering conservatives. By Dec. 9, when the National Assembly voted on the impeachment motion, the pendulum had swung completely. The final tally was 234 votes in favor, 56 against. Although the vote was secret, at least 62 conservative lawmakers—more than half of the Saenuri Party—must have crossed over to impeach Park.

The South Korean experience offers two lessons for U.S. liberals who wish to impeach and remove Trump. The first lesson is: Don’t lose hope. Many liberals despaired at the seemingly indestructible support for Trump. They fret that the Republican electorate is so emotionally committed to Trump that they will overlook any wrongdoing, while Republican lawmakers are too cowardly to stand up against Trump. South Koreans liberals made the exact same charge until 2016—that Park’s concrete floor of support was too impenetrable and her hold over the Saenuri Party too complete.

Fortunately, they were wrong. Authoritarian structures are rarely as strong as they seem. They erode gradually and then fall apart suddenly. Since Pelosi began the impeachment inquiry, the popular support for removing Trump from office has been steadily rising. Former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake predicted at least 35 Republican senators would vote to remove Trump if the vote were anonymous. It is hardly outlandish to think the next outrageous action from Trump will finally cause at least some in the Republican Party to break with him. A straw may not look like much, but when placed on top of the right amount of load, it can break a camel’s back.

The second lesson is to recognize different roles for the public and the legislators. It was entirely understandable that the South Korean public raged at Woo for not moving quickly to impeach. It was likewise entirely justifiable for Woo and the Democratic leadership to take their time and ensure they had the votes before bringing the impeachment motion. They simply had different roles, which they both performed ably. The public showed up in massive numbers to show their support and apply pressure to the legislators, and the political leadership leveraged the pressure into flipping votes that otherwise would not have been there. It is a mistake to ask the public to restrain their rhetoric, just as much as it is a mistake to demand politicians not to engage in the horse-trading that is essential to any political process.

For U.S. liberals who want Trump gone, the path ahead is a narrow one. It is no small task to convince nearly half of Republican senators to vote to remove the president of their own party. But in 2016, South Korea showed how it could be done. Braving the harsh winter winds, the public showed up in massive numbers to the weekly candlelight protests, and liberal politicians showed leadership by patiently negotiating with their conservative counterparts. Americans would do well to take note.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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