The South Korean President's Welcome Offer to Resign
If there was to be a leadership crisis on the Korean Peninsula, one might have expected it to unfold in the autocratic North, not democratic South Korea. As Koreans now grapple with the fallout from an enormous political scandal in the presidential Blue House, they will need to trust in the strengths of that democracy.
On Tuesday, after mounting protests against her rule, President Park Geun-hye essentially offered to resign on any schedule worked out by the National Assembly. The influence-peddling scandal that’s brought her down is in some ways lurid, involving allegations of shamanism, mind control and mysterious Viagra purchases. Yet even the more straightforward charges -- that Park allowed her friend Choi Soon-sil to interfere in government affairs, and that Choi used her ties to the president to squeeze tens of millions of dollars in “donations” from major Korean conglomerates -- have yet to be fully investigated and aired in court. And if Park leaves office and thus relinquishes her presidential immunity, they can be pursued transparently and according to law.
The urgent need is for stability. The world can ill afford a power vacuum in Seoul right now. The U.S. is in the midst of an unsettling presidential transition; controversy and confusion surround the incoming administration’s commitment to Asia. As isolationist sentiment grows in Washington, leaders in Beijing are sure to assert themselves more forcefully in the region. It will be tempting for the North Korean regime to test President-elect Donald Trump soon after his inauguration. South Korea can afford political paralysis least of all: It faces a slew of rising challenges, from youth unemployment to sky-high household debt. Park’s erstwhile reform agenda -- to weaken the grip that conglomerates hold over the economy and encourage more innovative knowledge industries -- remains woefully incomplete.
Although many Koreans want Park to resign immediately, she was wise to throw herself on the mercy of the legislature. It opens the possibility for a “stable transfer of the government,” as she put it. If she departs near the end of the year, an election for her successor could be held in March. That would allow United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon time to finish out his term and, if he wishes, run to replace her, giving Koreans a fuller range of choices for their next leader.
So far, the opposition has rejected Park’s offer, preferring to go ahead with impeachment, which could be a long and messy process. It’s unclear how long a transition the ruling party will seek. But little can be gained by dragging out Park’s departure. It will be better for the nation, and the world, if South Korea can move forward calmly and without undue delay to elect its next president.
--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Mary Duenwald
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