by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP
SOUTH KOREA saw hundreds of thousands demonstrating last week, with some counts stating that over one million participated in demonstrations on November 12th. Protests have now entered their fourth week. The ongoing scandal regarding embattled South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s bizarre devotion to her friend and spiritual advisor, Choi Sil-soon, is not going away anytime soon. Demonstrators called on Park to step down, stating Park was no longer suitable to be president of South Korea. Reportedly, Park allowed Choi access to classified information and to embezzle tens of millions of dollars in government funds and to dictate aspects of her life ranging from wardrobe choices to presidential speeches. Park’s approval rating is currently below five percent.
After being questioned by prosecutors, prosecutors concluded that Park colluded with Choi to embezzle money. Because South Korean presidents can only be prosecuted for insurrection or treason, Park may only be prosecuted once out of office. Regardless, Park would be the first South Korean president to be interrogated in an ongoing criminal case. This is despite high-profile cases of political corruption in the past such as Chun Doo-hwan embezzling nearly one billion dollars during South Korea’s authoritarian period in the 1980s, and the arrest of family members of President Lee Myung-bak on charges of corruption during the democratic period. The history of corruption in South Korean politics raises serious questions about the country’s political system.
With no move by Park to resign as of yet, Park appears to be trying to wait out the political crisis in hopes that it can be contained, however, unlikely this would be. Park has sixteen months left in her term and is not eligible to run for another term. Although in the past Park had pushed for an expansion of presidential term limits, prompting fears that this was a move by Park aimed at expanding her powers beyond that of a sitting president, that is not likely to happen in the present political climate, nor is it likely that Park would win another term.
If mounting public pressure forces Parks to step down, doing so would cost Park her presidential immunity, and presidential powers such as her control over the South Korean armed forces or ability to grant pardons. Hence why Park would be reluctant to step down. Park is still in a position to do a lot of damage with her presidential powers, though the legislature and other branches of government may try to put limitations on her powers going forward. It is also a possibility that Park may try to escape South Korea in some form.
Current protests include participants of previous demonstrations against Park in 2015, which were not as large as present protests, but also numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Demonstrators in 2015 were protesting planned textbook changes by the Park administration which would have whitewashed South Korea’s authoritarian period, including the period of rule by Park’s father, the dictator Park Chung-hee. Likewise, demonstrators were protesting neoliberal reforms which would have broken apart South Korea’s system of lifetime employment. As such, demonstrations in 2015 included student groups and labor groups.
Present protests represent an expansion of previous demonstrations, with not only previous demonstrators taking to the streets but many individuals who had never demonstrated in the past. The South Korean people were not willing to take Park’s actions sitting down, opposing an an authoritarian mentality which would accept government leaders’ actions no matter how inexcusable. Such demonstrations would represent the present vitality of South Korean democracy.
But the Park scandal is in itself a legacy of South Korea’s period of authoritarian rule, given that Park is the daughter of a dictator, and Choi Soon-sil had a hold over Park because Choi Soon-sil’s father was an associate of Park Chung-hee. Likewise, Park was originally elected by the South Korean people, although behind her were the same far-right political forces which had aligned themselves behind her father. Despite his status as an authoritarian dictator, some still consider Park Chung-hee the “father of the country”, with the Park period remembered as a time of economic growth and prosperity. Post-authoritarian nostalgia is sometimes still a threat to the continued survival of democracy in nations which have purportedly transitioned to a stable democracy.
How to take present demonstrations in a leftward direction and how to prevent another individual such as Park from being elected again in the future remain unknown.. Between demonstrations last year and demonstrations this year, demands that Park step down because of her bizarre actions in office blends into the critique of resurgent authoritarianism under Park. But demanding Park to step down is not in itself a left demand and so it may take some work to use present political demonstrations as an impetus for a leftwards political push in South Korea.