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South Korea’s finest hour: Lessons from the impeachment

The scandal that felled Park Geun-Hye has been covered extensively elsewhere. Here are three broader lessons in political science.

Demonstrators celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, March 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)
Demonstrators celebrate the impeachment of South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, March 2017 (Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency)
Published 11 Apr 2017   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye was removed from office in March. She was originally impeached by the legislature, the National Assembly, in December. The Constitutional Court (the country's highest court) is required to ratify such a motion for presidential removal. It did.

Park is now a regular citizen. She lost her presidential immunity from criminal prosecution upon completion of impeachment, and now faces charges. South Korean opinion (but for a few holdouts who battled police briefly on the day of the court ruling) seems to broadly support prosecution. Park may well be imprisoned by the end of the year.

The scandal that felled Park has been covered extensively elsewhere. Here are three broader lessons in political science:

1. Corruption is now the single most important issue in South Korean domestic politics

I have previously argued that North Korea was the most important issue in South Korean foreign policy, but at home now the graft that so scars the upper reaches of Korean politics and business is undoubtedly front and centre. Outside analysts have argued for years that South Korea needed to be cleaner. In its Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranks South Korea at 52 out of the 176 countries scored, an obviously disappointing result.

The 1997 crisis that nearly felled the Korean economy was caused by the 'moral hazard' of Korean businesses over-borrowing on the (correct) expectation that their buddies in politics would bail them out. Numerous regulatory problems, most prominently poor safety enforcement that lead to the heart-rending Sewol ferry sinking, have been blamed on regulators being too cozy with business. So severe has public intolerance of graft become that the government rolled out an extremely strict anti-corruption law (ironically just as Choi-gate was breaking).

South Koreans seem increasingly less tolerant of corruption. One former president after another has been scrutinised. Conglomerate elites are frequently investigated, and the head of no less than sacred cow Samsung has been swept up in Choi-gate. Remediation is better than nothing, but prevention is the real way to get that Transparency International scoredown. At some point soon, some Korean president will have to tackle this issue root and branch.

2. South Korea needs vice-presidents rather than constitutionally weak, fall-guy prime ministers

One obvious constitutional reason for the uncertainty Choi-gate generated is the curious South Korean prime ministerial position. South Korea is basically a presidential democracy, patterned off the long-standing US ally. It has two separate election cycles, one for the executive, another for the legislature. Yet South Korea also includes an element from parliamentary systems (a prime minister), suggesting that South Korea is actually a 'semi-presidential system'. However, South Korea's prime minister does not have the powers of normal semi-presidential PMs. South Korea's prime minister requires the president's approval to stay in office and does not lead a parliamentary majority independent of the president, even though there are separate legislative and presidential elections.

This suggest that this person actually functions like the US vice-president. But even that comparison fails, because the PM only becomes the acting president if the sitting president is removed or dies in office. The constitution requires that a new election be held within 60 days (which will happen under this current acting president on 9 May). In practice then, the Korean PM has evolved into a fall-guy role – someone on whom the president can blame for screw-ups and fire to sate public demands for accountability. Korean presidents routinely burn through several PMs during their tenure for these political reasons. An obvious solution to this weird, not-really-PM, not-really-vice-president position would be elevating the role to a full-blooded vice-president on the US model. Such a VP could have stepped into Park's role and finished her term without the uncertainty of yet another election and the resetting of the entire constitutional clock (Korean elections have hitherto been held in November – if the next president is to serve the same five-year term as all previous presidents, future presidential elections must now take place in May).

3. South Korea just gave democracies an exemplar of impeachment

Full-blown, completed impeachments are rare in democracies. This is almost certainly as it should be – impeachment overturns election via popular will to the land's highest office and should be done only in extreme circumstances. Impeachments are purposefully hard to complete – the barriers are intentionally high and constitutional machinery frequently complicated. Often impeachment is threatened or pursued for political purposes and they fail, such as the uncompleted impeachments of US President Bill Clinton or previous South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun.

Though important for democratic stability, the rarity of impeachments also means that there are few exemplars of a completed, legally proper impeachment process. Even in the best-known impeachment model to date, that of US President Richard Nixon, the process did not finish; Nixon resigned first.

South Korea has therefore given those in democracies something very valuable – a model of how to complete a forced presidential removal by rule of law. It is notable that the demonstrations for months against Park never turned violent. No one died, and there was almost no property damage – the protestors even picked up their trash. At the protests' peak, nearly 4% of the national population was on the streets – yet the police presence never had to be supplemented by the military. Anarchists, militants, and other miscreants were not able to latch onto the marches to create political mischief. At no point did this evolve into a 'colour revolution' or Arab Spring, targeting the state itself.

And the state behaved with commendable legality. The National Assembly followed the constitutional procedure, as did the Constitutional Court. In both bodies, the votes were overwhelming, 234-56 and 8-0 respectively, providing a powerful sense of legitimacy to the impeachment. When the Court read the final verdict, it spoke for nearly an hour, explaining its decision as the whole nation watched. This was an astonishing national civics lesson at the highest level, an education in constitutionalism and rule of law for an entire nation. This sort of moment almost never takes place in modern democracies and illustrated in brilliant detail the vast moral superiority of South Korea over the North. The acting president then gave a similar speech defining South Korea as a liberal democratic constitutional state, one bound by rule of law. The afternoon following the Court's final verdict, the party that supported Park admitted its mistake, accepted the judgment and committed itself to work for rule of law and democracy. The only thing really missing was a statement from Park herself. She has yet to fully and publicly admit the legitimacy of her removal, continuing to maintain her innocence.

In short, almost all actors behaved with commendable constitutional responsibility. At time when the US President lies continuously and populist nastiness is sweeping the West, this was a sobering display of political seriousness and maturity. All democracies have scandals – the question is how they deal with them. South Korea just gave the world a model performance. In the nine years I have lived in South Korea, I have never been prouder to be here. This was South Koreans' finest hour.

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