Korea’s Park Impeached as Voters Vent Anger Over Corruption

  • Park suspended from power until constitutional court’s ruling
  • Mass street protests demand reform of politics and business

South Korea Votes to Impeach Park

Undone by an influence-peddling scandal, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was impeached by parliament on Friday amid a wave of anger that could overturn the nation’s politics and increase pressure on some of Asia’s biggest companies to reform.

With hundreds of police forming a wall to hold back thousands of demonstrators outside the National Assembly in Seoul, lawmakers voted 234 to 56 in favor of impeachment, easily meeting the requirement for a two-thirds majority as dozens from Park’s own party voted against her. Protesters singing the Christmas carol “Feliz Navidad,” with the lyrics changed to "not Park Geun-hye," broke into cheers in a carnival atmosphere.

Demonstrations outside the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The result means Park is suspended from power and the interim leadership passes to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. The Constitutional Court now needs to ratify parliament’s decision, a process that may take as long as six months. If the judges concur, a national election would be held about two months later.

The fall of South Korea’s first female leader -- and daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee -- marks another sign of the anti-establishment anger that fueled Brexit, brought Donald Trump to power and toppled Italian leader Matteo Renzi. Protesters have likened Park’s allies to collaborators under dictators and called conglomerate heads “accomplices,” while a mayor who compares himself to Bernie Sanders has surged in opinion polls for the next president.

Reforms on Hold

Park was impeached after the market closed on Friday. South Korea’s Kospi index began to slide after her first apology for the scandal in late October, and started to bounce back this week ahead of the impeachment vote. It fell 0.3 percent Friday after hitting a seven-week high on Thursday.

Hwang, Park’s immediate replacement, is a former justice minister who she designated as premier last year after he successfully led a court battle to dissolve a minor party her administration accused of being aligned with North Korea. In a televised speech, the 59-year-old said that his heart is “heavy” and he’ll try to ensure the government runs properly.

The scope of policy actions under Hwang is “likely to be relatively limited,” Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS Global Insight, said by e-mail. “The government is unlikely to pursue significant economic reforms until the next presidential election can be held.”

After weeks of protests near the presidential office, Koreans on Friday filled the boulevards around parliament in the freezing cold, demanding Park’s removal plus an end to the cozy ties between the political and business elite that were once the bedrock of South Korea’s economic miracle. 

Chaebol Ties

“This will escalate the popular enthusiasm for reforms by another level," said Kim Yun-cheol, who teaches political science at the Humanitas College of Kyung Hee University in Seoul. “Demand for experiments will intensify along with pressure on Park to resign. Simultaneously, a presidential race will accelerate, especially in the opposition, and that has the potential to shake the political landscape again.”

For months, prosecutors and opposition lawmakers have pursued ties between Park and her friend Choi Soon-sil, as well as the links between the president’s office and the family-run chaebol conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai that dominate the economy. The stream of often lurid revelations swelled anger in the nation’s 50 million population amid widening income inequality, soaring household debt, youth unemployment and a slump in once-mighty steel mills and shipyards.

The economy is projected to expand just 2.7 percent this year, the first five-year run of sub-3.5 percent growth since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Read about how the Sewol ferry sinking and Viagra allegations hurt Park

Some protesters traveled across the country to witness the vote. Others camped out in front of the National Assembly building. In the morning, they waved placards announcing: “A great day for impeachment,” demanding "Dismantle the chaebols," and warning lawmakers, “We are watching you!” 

The protests were the largest in the country since 1987, when South Koreans mobilized against a military junta to achieve direct presidential elections. The business elite has since maintained and even grown their influence on the country that relies heavily on exports.

“What makes me really angry is that Korea has retreated, or hasn’t advanced at all, from decades ago when former presidents were found to have been bribed by top businesses,” said jobless protester Woo Jung-eun, 30, who has been camped in front of parliament since Dec. 1.

On Tuesday, parliament summoned the heads of the nine big chaebols for questioning on their involvement in the presidential scandal. The business leaders, including Jay Y. Lee of Samsung Electronics Co., denied at the hearing they sought political favors in exchange for the tens of millions of dollars they donated to foundations controlled by Choi.

“These companies and their leaders know if they keep their heads down for a little bit, it’s very hard to dislodge them,” David Kang, a professor at the USC Korean Studies Institute, said on Bloomberg TV. “These are favors that are given in exchange over years between families that have existed over generations. Radically changing that system is extremely hard in Korea. It’s one reason why it’s still around."

The strength of the impeachment vote adds to pressure on Park to resign as potential candidates to succeed her stake out their turf.

Read about the economic implications of the impeachment vote

Opposition heavyweight Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea is the front-runner in polls, followed by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term is almost over. But anger against Park and the ruling Saenuri party, and disillusionment with the political system, have also propelled outsiders into the spotlight. 

Rising in the polls behind Ban is Lee Jae-myung, a straight-talking 52-year-old mayor who was one of the first people to call for impeachment. Lee has roused crowds at rallies, calling for a “revolutionary change.”

“What is the root of all this turmoil? It’s the chaebol,” Lee said at a rally last week, adding the chaebol can use their money “to corrupt everyone.”

Lee is the only one to declare his candidacy for the election, but other neophytes have gained support in recent years. They include Park Won-soon, a former civic activist who was elected Seoul mayor in 2011, and Ahn Cheol-soo, a software tycoon-turned-politician whose party was just three months old when it won 38 seats in April elections. Both have criticized the chaebols’ dominance in the economy.

Lame Duck

That election could come soon if Park steps down. At an “informal” meeting with Cabinet members after the vote, Park said she hoped the current "confusion" is resolved smoothly. 

“Once again I express my apology for this huge national confusion that arises from my mistakes and unworthiness at a time the nation faces difficulties in both economy and security,” she said, her voice trembling as she neared the end of her televised speech.

Park’s ouster by impeachment would be unprecedented. In 2004, the constitutional court decided against ratifying the impeachment of former President Roh Moo-hyun. If it rejects parliament’s move this time around, Park’s power would be restored and she could attempt to remain in office until her term expires in 2018.

The crowds in Seoul Friday suggest that would not be a popular decision.

— With assistance by Brendan Scott, Jung Soo Maeng, Peter Pae, Sohee Kim, Hooyeon Kim, Jaehyun Eom, Shinhye Kang, and Kyunghee Park

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