It’s Time for Justice, Not Healing

The United States needs to follow South Korea’s post-impeachment example.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during his New Year's speech at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 11.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during his New Year's speech at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on Jan. 11. South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

As I watched the surreal scenes of the U.S. Capitol under siege on Jan. 6, another date came to my mind: March 10, 2017, when South Korea’s Constitutional Court sustained the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye on massive corruption charges. As in Washington, an authoritarian conservative president was defeated by the rule of law and the democratic process, and a rioting mob attempted to reverse the result by force. Like Jan. 6, March 10 was not successful, but the coup attempt was closer than most realized at the time. The actions taken by South Korea’s liberal administration in response are instructive for the Biden administration stepping into the aftermath of the attempted subversion of democracy.

On March 10, Park was staring down defeat: The National Assembly, South Korea’s legislature, had impeached her in December 2016, which meant the Constitutional Court would determine her fate on that day. Park’s presidential staff was certain that she would prevail, to the point of preparing a special cake to celebrate. Park’s rabid fans were equally confident—not least because they needed only three dissenting votes out of the eight Constitutional Court justices then sitting at the time, as the removal required at least six votes in favor.

On March 10, thousands of Park supporters gathered in front of the Blue House, corralled by a makeshift barricade made up of police buses. At around 11 a.m., Lee Jung-mi, the acting chief justice of the Constitutional Court, announced that the court had decided—unanimously—to remove Park from the presidency. For a few minutes, the pro-Park crowd stood in stunned silence. Then one of the speakers screamed into the mic: “We came here ready to die. Rise up! We need to show them how terrifying we can be!” When the crowd hesitated, another speaker grabbed the mic: “Listen to the order and charge! Climb over the buses!” With that exhortation, the rally turned into a riot. Arming themselves with any heavy object nearby, the pro-Park crowd began attacking the police and the journalists around them. One of the rioters commandeered a police bus and rammed into the barricade; others attempted to climb over the bus barricade while beating the police with clubs. Four protesters would die in the scuffle, and 33 police were injured.

But like the Jan. 6 sacking of the Capitol, only later was it revealed that March 10 could have been even worse. In July 2018, an internal document from the Defense Security Command—the internal affairs bureau of the South Korean military—revealed that it was planning to pour in more than 5,000 soldiers and 750 tanks and armored cars into Seoul to declare martial law and arrest opposition lawmakers.

President Moon Jae-in, who was elected in a landslide following Park’s removal, did not make airy promises for unity and healing as he took office. Instead, his slogan was jeokpye cheongsan: “disposing the accumulated ills.” The term “accumulated ills” indicated a recognition that the corruption and authoritarianism of Park and her conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak were systemic and long-lasting, not a new development. The challenge extended beyond just Park’s own crimes. These illnesses had accumulated for decades, including a cozy relationship between large corporations and the government, a conservative media that increasingly resembled an entrenched disinformation campaign while the liberal media outlets engaged mechanical “both sides” coverage, and above all a conservative party that increasingly adopted corruption, abuse of power, and denial of civil liberties as the standard operating procedure.

Moon’s house cleaning was thus, of necessity, far-reaching. The Moon administration prosecuted and convicted the previous conservative presidents, Lee and Park, for corruption and abuse of power, securing prison sentences of 17 years and 22 years, respectively. The Defense Security Command was eliminated and replaced with a smaller institution with less power. The Moon administration attacked the hold of the almighty chaebol conglomerates over Korean politics by pursuing bribery charges against Jay Y. Lee, the heir of the massive Samsung Group, eventually resulting in him being sentenced to two and a half years in prison on Jan. 18. They pushed out the ostensibly apolitical bureaucrats who had used their powers for Park’s corrupt ends. The administration also aggressively pursued defamation charges against the most extreme far-right pundits, such as Go Yeong-ju, who claimed Moon was a communist because he was the lead attorney for the defendants in the 1981 Burim incident, in which the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship arrested and tortured student activists on trumped-up charges of North Korean sympathies.

As Joe Biden contemplates the wreckage left behind by Donald Trump, South Korea offers several lessons. The first one is: Do not give an inch to the anti-democratic forces. Having cut their teeth in politics by risking their lives battling the right-wing dictatorship, South Korean liberals understand instinctively that those who reject democracy are not amenable to civil persuasion. The Biden administration must approach the Trumpian legacy with the same level of determination. At stake, quite literally, is the fate of liberal democracy in the United States: The rioting mob, incited by Trump and Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, came close to some attackers’ stated goal of lynching Vice President Mike Pence and the Democratic Party leadership, potentially throwing the result of the valid presidential election into an uncontrollable chaos. Just like the flag-waving Park supporters, the Trump supporters who sacked the Capitol would sooner abandon democracy than accept the fact that their leader was on the losing end of the democratic process. If the United States is to remain a democracy, these anti-democrats must be defeated.

The second lesson is: Recognize the structural forces that gave rise to this moment, and dismantle them. The American version of the accumulated ills includes four years of Trump and the conservative media sphere that thrived in disinformation. It also includes a Republican Party that has steadily morphed over decades into the party of choice for violent white nationalists and the cynical donors and supporters who continued to feed the transformation in exchange for tax cuts and conservative judges. These forces should be marginalized into irrelevance by any legal means possible.

Another lesson: Do not flinch at the accusations of partisanship or infringement of freedom. When only one of the political parties refuses to accept the result of the democratic process—as the majority of Republican House members did—restoring democracy will necessarily be a partisan process. South Korea’s conservatives cried foul at Moon’s house cleaning, and clueless international observers whined that South Korea’s democracy was backsliding and left-wing authoritarianism was afoot. None of these points had any merit: Shutting out the anti-democratic forces is the restoration of democracy, not an injury to it. Moon’s jeokpye cheongsan received overwhelming public support, with the president’s approval approaching 80 percent at one point and the ruling Democratic Party pulling off landslide victories in consecutive national elections. Rather than sliding backward, South Korea’s ranks for freedom of the press and the health of democracy measured by Reporters Without Borders and the Economist Intelligence Unit rose to the top position in Asia—and higher than the United States.

Finally, the most important lesson: Despite the current low, a national rejuvenation is possible. Under Park, South Korea was an embarrassment. In 2014, a shocked public could only watch helplessly while the Sewol ferry carrying more than 300 high school students sunk on live television as the president was taking a nap. In 2015, the country had the most number of cases and deaths from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outside the Middle East, caused by the elementary failure to prevent cross-infection at a large hospital. Just a few years later, South Korea is winning plaudits from around the world with its successful efforts to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, bending the curve for the third time while North America and Europe are struggling with the winter third wave. On Jan. 6, many Americans grimly wondered: How will the United States come back from this? The South Korean experience points the way.

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