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South Korea's Winter of Discontent
After Park Geun Hye's impeachment, what will become of the ruling party?
By Shi Yongming | NO.1 JANUARY 5, 2017

Park Geun Hye apologizes for the confidante issues at the Blue House in Seoul on November 29, 2016 (XINHUA)

Park Geun Hye, the first female president of South Korea, has become the country's second president impeached by parliament. On December 9, 2016, the South Korean National Assembly overwhelmingly approved to remove the president, with 234 votes cast in favor of impeachment, 56 cast against and two abstentions. After the vote, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn became acting president.

Park's scandals have seriously damaged public confidence in the government and the reputation of the ruling Saenuri Party, which was known as the Grand National Party until 2012. Additionally, South Korea's political problems have been increasingly exposed to public scrutiny during the two-month-long political crisis.

From South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee, to Park, there have been a total of 11 presidents since the country was established after the end of World War II (WWII). Over the past 69 years, most of these state leaders have come to unsavory ends, such as being overthrown, impeached, jailed, and assassinated or compelled to suicide.

In 2004, then President Roh Moo Hyun became the first leader to be impeached by the parliament, having been mired in corruption scandals. He resumed his presidency after the Supreme Court rejected parliament's impeachment bill. But the investigation went on throughout Roh's presidency until his term finished in 2008. One year later, Roh killed himself by jumping from a cliff in his hometown.

The calamitous history of South Korean leaders reflects the intense political struggle in the country. Besides, South Korea's politics is often influenced by the changing geopolitical situation.

With the assistance of U.S. forces, South Korea was freed from Japanese occupation and finally realized national independence at the end of WWII. In the period since then, every administration of South Korea has been, to some level, dependent on the United States. During the country's modernization process, as the people increasingly demanded votes and diplomatic independence, fierce conflict broke out between the autocratic regime and the citizens. It was the left wing parties that played a leading role in the struggle for democracy in South Korea, rather than the right wing parties that Washington had long favored. For example, as early as 1980, the U.S.-backed Chun Doo Hwan government cracked down on a democratic movement in southwest South Korea's Gwangju City.

Because of foreign involvement and the split of the Korean Peninsula, South Korean politics has two serious problems. One is "behind-the-scenes" political manipulations, which affect the fairness and transparency of the government and the other is corruption, including privatization of political power and the propagation of different political factions.

Park's rugged presidency

In fact, Park's presidency was hardly a smooth ride since she took the oath of office in February 2013.

In the first year, four military officers from South Korea's cyber warfare command were accused of intervening in the 2012 election. They attacked Park's political rivals online during the election, including Moon Jae In, the presidential candidate of the opposition the Democratic United Party as well as some political critics and dissidents. This scandal implies that Park's electoral success might have involved some backstage manipulation.

The sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol en route from Incheon to Jeju was a heavy blow to Park's administration. Over 300 passengers and crew members died in the disaster that occurred on April 16, 2014. But Park did not show herself in public for seven hours after the incident, when the whole nation was fixated on the tragic sinking of the boat. By the time she did, the window of opportunity for saving lives had already closed. Today, the public still blames Park's disappearance for the bungled rescue, demanding a thorough investigation into Park's responsibility for the accident.

The subsequent series of political incidents in 2015 further aggravated public indignation against Park's governance. An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome set off a wave of fear across the country. There was also the bribery scandal of Sung Wan Jong, a former parliamentary member of the governing party.

The labor law reform implemented by Park's administration triggered serious conflicts among different classes in the country. The new labor bill will alter the current "qualification and length of service-based" employment and payment system, enabling employers to cut jobs and lower salaries more easily, thus undermining job stability and security. The reform is backed by tycoons and enterprises. But it incurred much discontent from trade unions and oppositions parties, and eventually led to a large-scale protest rally which 70,000 people participated in.

However, Park did not take public opinion seriously. At the end of 2015, the South Korean Government made some concessions on a controversial deal with the Japanese Government to acknowledge the historical controversy of "comfort women," sex slaves during WWII. As part of the deal, Japan must take responsibility for the suffering of comfort women during Japanese occupation. In exchange, South Korea will no longer criticize Japan or demand Tokyo compensates for its historical crimes. Many South Koreans were discontent with the deal and Park's administration did not inform the public before it reached a compromise with Japan.

In July 2016, ignoring protests from home and abroad, the Park administration announced the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)—a U.S. Army anti-ballistic missile system. This decision will spoil strategic balance and destabilize security in northeast Asia.

In October 2016, a confidante scandal was disclosed which threatened to loosen Park's grip on power. Choi Soon Sil, a long-time friend of the president, was found to have been given access to confidential government documents, including the first drafts of policy speeches. She is also accused of using her links to the president for financial gain.

The scandal of Choi's meddling in state affairs fermented and soon triggered a two-month long protest movement across the country. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Seoul demanding Park's resignation. The stream of mishaps and scandals engulfing Park's regime had riled people; the final straw led to parliamentary approval to suspend Park from the presidency in December 2016.

After her suspension, Hwang became acting president. However, will the governing party resume political stability and be able to neutralize widespread public discontent in the wake of a nationwide political tsunami?

Political prospects

For a long time, the instability of political parties has been a feature of South Korean politics. It reflects the complex and volatile nature of the country's political landscape, and the suspension of Park has a serious impact on the governing party.

As a conservative party, the Saenuri has a tendency to represent the interests of industrial and commercial giants more than that of the average citizen. On foreign policy, it follows Washington's lead closely.

Now, the Saenuri faces internal division. On the impeachment issue, only 57 of the 128 Saenuri members of parliament pledged their support for Park. Yet, if the party continues to stand up for its disgraced leader, it will lose further support in future elections. So the party must take a decision to either reorganize or to split.

At present, polling indicates a strong desire for change. According to polls conducted by South Korea's Realmeter, Moon Jae In, the former leader of the Democratic United Party, ranks top in public support as a potential candidate for the next presidential election. Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stands in second place, while Lee Jae Myung, the Mayor of Seongnam City, is third.

The 63-year old Moon is perceived to represent the interests of the middle and lower classes and Ban, with his experience as a veteran diplomat and the coordinator of the world's largest global governing organization, should enhance South Korean diplomacy with a global vision.

So far, many financial cliques and giant enterprises have been found to harbor intimate relations with senior officials or parliamentary members of the ruling party. Such conditions have resulted in support for the incumbent party rapidly vanishing. It is uncertain whether the nation can rid the influence of vested interests and money in politics.

Recently, the rise of populism has shifted the political landscape in some countries. In the face of these challenges, especially when the widening gap between the general public and the government and upper classes is considered, more measures should be taken to unite society in South Korea.

The author is an associate researcher of Asia-Pacific issues, China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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