The impeachment, and removal from office, of ousted South Korean president Park Geun-hye on charges of corruption and abuse of power has rocked the country’s political establishment and divided the electorate.
Not since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, rooted partly in the flawed economic policies of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, have South Koreans faced such an impasse.
It is still too early to know who will succeed her in the Blue House; a special election has been called for May 9. However, this much is clear: With Park’s unceremonious departure, a change in South Korea’s ruling party is all but assured. And with new blood must come renewed vigor to tackle governance problems — from dirty money in politics to incoherent foreign policy — that have plagued South Korea for far too long.
South Korea’s current political crisis began in October last year, when allegations emerged that Park had pressured the chaebols — the country’s giant family-owned conglomerates — to funnel huge sums of money into two foundations controlled by her close personal friend Choi Soon-sil. Word of Park’s cronyism left many South Koreans feeling betrayed by a president who had vowed to lead differently.
Park, whose authoritarian style resembled that of her father, routinely disregarded basic norms of liberal democracy. She scoffed at the rule of law and separation of government powers. After being accused of corruption, she simply ignored calls to appear before the South Korean Constitutional Court to testify. Prosecutors have issued another summons for her to appear in court tomorrow; it is still unclear if she will, even though she has lost her immunity from prosecution.
Park’s removal from office almost certainly means that political power will shift from the formerly Saenuri, or “New Frontier” (now the Liberty Korea) Party to opposition forces. At the moment, candidates from the center-left Democratic Party of Korea are leading in an effort to end nine years of conservative rule. Moon Jae-in, a former Democratic Party of Korea leader and the runner-up to Park in 2012, is the opposition’s front-runner by a wide margin.
Whoever becomes South Korea’s next president will be greeted by profound political, economic and foreign policy challenges.
On the domestic front, the South Korean president will inherit a political system in need of significant reform. Aside from calls to solidify the separation of powers by establishing a more robust system of legal checks and balances, there is near-consensus on the need to overhaul the five-year, single-term presidency. Established in 1987 during South Korea’s transition to democracy, the short timeframe hampers the incumbent’s ability to devise, implement and sustain long-term policies. Park, like many of her predecessors, pushed to change the term limits, but her efforts were stymied by bad timing.
These and other changes will require democratic leadership, based on active communication with various segments of society. South Koreans are hopeful in this regard, believing that anyone will be better than Park. According to one opinion poll, her approval rating before leaving office was a dismal 4 percent.
The next president’s biggest economic challenge will be to untangle the ties between politicians and chaebol owners. At the moment, the chaebols’ proximity to political power reduces the transparency of corporate governance, discourages competition, and weakens the innovative potential of small and medium-size enterprises.