South Korea's Susceptibility to Scandal

What comes next?

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

The impeachment of South Korean leader Park Geun-hye should herald the end of a painful and drawn-out political scandal. As they move forward, Koreans should be thinking about how to avoid another one.

With Friday’s 234-to-56 vote in the National Assembly, Park’s powers as president have been suspended. For weeks, she tried to fend off public anger over influence-peddling allegations involving a private confidant, Choi Soon-sil. Park admitted sharing speeches and other information with Choi; prosecutors claim she also encouraged aides to help Choi squeeze millions of dollars in “donations” from large Korean conglomerates, or chaebol. Public outrage pushed Park’s popularity below 5 percent, and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. Even if she had escaped impeachment, she could hardly have accomplished anything further of substance.

It seems unlikely that the Constitutional Court, which must ratify Park’s impeachment, would defy such a clear expression of public will. It should now act quickly to eliminate any uncertainty so the next government can take shape without delay. Ideally, an election for a new president can be held within a few months.

South Korea’s next leader will want to follow through on Park’s actions to strengthen national security: her decision to station a U.S. missile defense shield in South Korea, for instance, and the deal to increase intelligence-sharing with Japan.  

And it will be essential to keep sight of the country’s long-term economic needs. As the Choi scandal demonstrated, the chaebol remain as powerful and politically connected as ever. Calls to professionalize their management and ease their stranglehold on the Korean economy have grown louder than ever and should be heeded. Innovative small and medium-sized companies require financing and greater support. And South Korea’s rigid labor market needs to be loosened up. What growth the country has managed recently has been bought at the expense of rising debt, and that’s not a sustainable strategy.

Finally, South Korea’s next leader will have to address the country’s special vulnerability to presidential scandal. All of Park’s elected predecessors were investigated for corruption or cronyism, and one even killed himself in response. Part of the problem is the Korean constitution, which limits presidents to one five-year term yet allows them wide-ranging powers while in office. This encourages overreach: Leaders are driven to ram through big initiatives quickly rather than build consensus. By the time they leave office, presidents can, as Park has, find themselves isolated and dependent on a few, sometimes dubious loyalists.

Whoever replaces Park should immediately begin building consensus around a set of constitutional reforms to check presidential powers, while at the same time allowing incumbents to run for a second term -- to encourage continuity of policy and longer-term thinking. The present scandal has been a tragedy for South Korea, but it can also be an opportunity for change.

South Korea Votes to Impeach Park

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