Reclaiming Democracy in South Korea

What had started with bizarre media headlines claiming that South Korea’s president was being controlled by a Rasputin-like shamanist cult figure is now a new socio-political movement that is sweeping across the country and catching the world’s attention in the process. Although frequently called “the Miracle on the Han River” for its unprecedented economic growth following the Korean War (1950-53), South Korea is still coming to terms with its rapid advancement. Economic and social disparities have become more and more apparent and only recently, democracy is being uprooted by the biggest scandal in modern Korean history.

President Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri party, whose five-year term was scheduled to end in February 2018, faces her largest scandal involving a longtime friend and secret adviser, Choi Soon-sil. Numerous allegations are currently being investigated, such as the leaking of classified documents and/or state secrets concerning diplomacy and national security, unlawful involvement in major policy business, and unlawful awarding of government contracts. Park has suffered multiple scandals throughout her term, even before her election as president; for instance, public servants from National Intelligence Service (NIS) were accused of illicit online campaign activity in favor of Park leading up to the 2012 presidential elections. In November of 2015, anti-government protests erupted in response to Park’s business-friendly labour policies and decision to require use of state-issued history textbooks starting in 2017.

As of November 20th, Choi Soon-sil has been officially charged by prosecutors for intervening with state affairs (without a government position or security clearance) and coercing large business conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai to donate tens of millions of dollars to personally-owned foundations and businesses.

South Korean history is no stranger to political corruption as a majority of the nation’s past eleven presidential administrations, irrespective of political party, have been tangled in some form of scandal. South Korean democracy has been precarious at best, alternating between periods of democratic and autocratic rule since its founding in 1948. Furthermore, South Koreans face the highest levels of income inequality in the Asia-Pacific region, with the heavy burden falling on the working class and young people. According to Michael Hurt, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, “Class division and increasing income inequality adds to a growing sense that the old promises of sacrificing, working hard and simply getting by based on one’s blood sweat and tears, is from a time that is no longer relevant.”

All of these frustrations, on top of this new presidential scandal, are the driving forces of what appears to be South Korea’s newest democratic revolution, uncannily resembling the numerous populist movements gaining prominence across Europe and the United States. What had started as candle light vigils evolved into one of the most effective demonstrations of public organization and political activism in South Korean history and the world. Six straight Saturdays of protest have occurred demanding Park’s immediate resignation thus far and are only increasing in momentum with the most recent rally drawing an estimated 2.3 million people (approximately 3% of the population. When put to scale, the 1982 anti-nuclear protests in the United States, the largest political demonstration in American history, are only estimated to be, at most, 1 million people.

It was uncertain whether this scandal could catalyze a political movement strong enough to amount to any tangible change. However, Park’s influence-peddling scandal marks a new low in what is considered politically reprehensible, with her approval ratings at 4 percent overall and zero percent among Koreans under 30 – the lowest for any sitting president. An editorial by The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper and an influential conservative voice, makes a clear distinction that this is “…no ordinary lame-duck phenomenon” but rather a “…complete collapse of a president's ability to run a government.”

After three separate apologetic statements from President Park, which only angered the Korean people further, the acceptance of a “timely” resignation (which may not occur until April) seems more and more unlikely as pressure from all sides increases on the Blue House. In the National Assembly, the three opposition parties-- Democratic Party of Korea, People's Party, and Justice Party—have agreed to push an impeachment motion through the National Assembly on December 9th, calling on undecided lawmakers of the ruling Saenuri Party to participate in the vote instead of waiting for her resignation. One day following last Saturday’s historic rally, a bloc of 29 lawmakers (including former party leader Kim Moo-sung and ex-floor leader Yoo Seong-min) announced their willingness to “do [their] utmost to pass the impeachment bill," regardless of whether Park announces her voluntary resignation or not.

Considering South Korea’s familiarity with corrupted intuitions and leaders unwilling to yield power – notably Park Chung-hee, military general and president from 1961 until his assassination in 1979, and late father to incumbent president Park’s – the populist fervor and empowered sense of political efficacy demonstrated by these million-strong marches marks a much needed departure from the status quo; a movement takes the responsibility upon itself to reclaim democracy. The hard work and resolve of ordinary individuals–not miracles–never goes to waste and is what pushes countries forward. When public outrage is organized and focused on bringing people together instead of apart, not even establishment politics or bureaucracy can slow down the change. Regardless of the outcome of Friday’s impeachment vote, the cracks in Korea’s democracy are now exposed for the world to see, a painful but necessary truth that must be reconciled in the process towards a more just government and equal economic opportunity.

-Samuel Kim

[UPDATE: On 9 December 2016, Park was impeached by the National Assembly by a vote of 234 for and 56 against (with seven invalid votes and two abstentions), suspending her presidential powers and duties. The impeachment was then upheld unanimously by the Constitutional Court on 10 March 2017, formally ending Park's presidency. The 19th South Korean presidential election is scheduled to be held on 9 May 2017.]


Samuel Kim

Sam is a junior at NYU's College of Arts and Sciences pursuing majors in Politics and East Asian Studies, with a concentration in Korean language and civilization. Having grown up on a U.S. military base in South Korea, he is particularly interested in U.S. defense policy, international security, post-colonial Korea, and Asian American history. Sam serves as the president of NYU Asian Pacific American Coalition and the treasurer of NYU College Democrats. He is a former intern for New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou and currently works at the Public Interest Center at NYU School of Law.