South Koreans topple their corrupt president

The high court confirmed the impeachment of Park Guen-hye on corruption charges last week, but SooKyung Nam shows how it was mass protest that drove her from office.

Masses of people flood the streets of Seoul days before the ouster of South Korean President Park Geun-hyeMasses of people flood the streets of Seoul days before the ouster of South Korean President Park Geun-hye

THE PEOPLE did it. After a series of mass demonstrations over the past five months, President Park Guen-hye was officially removed from office on March 10, when the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld parliament's vote to impeach her.

The major protests against Park started last October when a political scandal over her corruption and cronyism came to light. The initial allegations were made mainly against Park's longtime friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil, who was believed to have used her presidential connection to extort about $70 million from the country's "chaebols" (conglomerates) and meddle in state policies behind the scenes.

Further investigation soon revealed that the president not a naïve victim as she claimed but the main culprit. Park abused her power to take in millions of dollars in bribes from chaebols--including such global names as Hyundai, LG and Samsung--in a scheme worked out with Choi.

In the midst of public anger and outcry, Park's approval rating dropped to a record low of 4 percent--and her approval rating among people under the age of 30 actually sank to 0 percent.

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PARK'S DOWNFALL represents a huge victory for the power of ordinary South Koreans, who took to the streets week after week to protest against the corruption and cronyism of the president.

The anti-Park protests brought together families with young children, middle and high school students, college students, unionists and feminists, along with the loved ones of the Sewol ferry disaster. In November, a convoy of farmers from the countryside, many of them driving tractors, joined a demonstration of at least 500,000 people that paralyzed streets in the capital of Seoul.

For many, this was their first ever protest. After a lull in recent decades, the movement to impeach Park sparked a revival of the huge demonstrations that marked the pro-democracy movement of the late 1980s, when South Korean students and workers took to the streets and occupied factories in a successful effort to end a military dictatorship.

As in the 1980s, the removal of Park was driven by mass pressure. The National Assembly voted to impeach Park on December 9 of last year, by a vote of 234 to 56--less than a week after 2.3 million people had participated in a largest single-day protest in the country's history.

On the day of the vote, protesters gathered to chant "Impeachment!" in front of the National Assembly. "Can you hear the roar of the people?" asked a member of the parliament just before the vote. "We need to overcome the old establishment and create a new Republic of Korea by passing [the impeachment motion]."

Even Park's ruling Saenuri Party gave a surprising level of support to the vote in order to avoid its own collapse. Last month, Saenuri changed its name to the Liberal Korea Party in an effort to distance itself from its disgraced former leader.

After the impeachment vote, Park's executive power was suspended and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, a Park loyalist, became acting president until the court ruled on the parliament's vote.

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BUT PROTESTERS didn't just passively wait for the Constitutional Court to make a decision for them. Demonstrations continued every weekend, calling for impeachment and a full investigation of Park's corruption and abuse of power.

Just like U.S. Supreme Court, South Korea's Constitutional Court is not "above politics." Its main role is to uphold the status quo of society. But when that status quo is challenged by powerful social protest, courts can be forced to pay attention.

The Constitutional Court's entire bench was appointed by Park and her conservative predecessor, and it had delivered numerous conservative and controversial decisions--most notably its 2014 decision to disband the left-wing Unified Progressive Party (UPP), based on the Park administration's claim that the UPP supported North Korea.

The Constitutional Court voted 8 to 1 for the disbanding of the UPP, setting a dangerous and undemocratic precedent for state repression of opponents. Amnesty International criticized the UPP ban, which it said followed "a number of cases in recent years in which South Korea's vague National Security Law (NSL) and other laws have been used to suppress dissent and alleged support for North Korea."

But in the face of months of protests that involved a cumulative total of 16 million people, and polls showing 80 percent in favor of impeachment, the Court clearly felt the democratic pressure of popular opinion.

When the ruling finally came on March 10, it was broadcast live on national TV, and thousands of people gathered outside of the courthouse. As the verdict was announced that the impeachment was upheld because, people cheered with joy and held up signs that said "Victory for the people" and "New Republic of Korea."

As a result of the court's decision, Park has lost executive immunity as president and can now face criminal charges. Protesters are calling for Park's immediate arrest and a criminal investigation.

By law, a presidential election must take place in 60 days--by May 9 at the latest. With the conservatives discredited by the downfall of Park, the liberal Democratic Party led by Moon Jae-in has a very good chance to take power.

It is questionable, however, whether the Democratic Party will bring in the real changes people want. When protesters were demanding Park's immediate resignation last year, opposition parties and liberal politicians were hesitant--and more interested in figuring out how to channel the anger and energy into electoral politics for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, the South Korean mainstream media is preaching that now is the time to restore to "normalcy" and to avoid "division and conflicts."

But the popular discontent won't easily dissipate simply because Park is out. Many say this is not the end, but just the beginning of the struggle to get rid of the more general corruption among the elites, and to create a more fair and just society.

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THERE ARE a number of important reforms that need to be won.

Firstly, South Koreans have long demanded policies to curtail the economic monopoly and political influence of chaebols that have dominated the nation's economy.

Lee Jae-yong, the acting head of Samsung, gave Park $20 million in return for government favors. He was finally arrested and jailed for bribery, corruption and other related charges, and is now facing trial.

Lee's arrest was another victory that was only possible due to the pressure from the people--Samsung had long been considered too important to the national economy to allow for its leaders to be put behind bars. There are now mounting demands for other business tycoons involved in the scandal, including executives of Hyundai and Lotte, to face legal action.

Secondly, South Koreans must demand fundamental democratic rights and the release of all jailed unionists and activists, including Han Sang-gyun and Lee Jin-young.

Han Sang-gyun, president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to five years for organizing protests against the government.

Lee Jin-young, a militant unionist and the coordinator of the book-sharing web site Labor Book, was arrested in January 2017 for violating the notorious National Security Law and faces charges of benefiting the enemy by sharing publications that "agitate violent revolution and revolt against the state."

Families of the Sewol Ferry victims have also been demanding justice ever since April 2014, when the passenger ferry sank off the southwest coast of South Korea, costing the lives of more than 300 passengers--most of them high school students on a field trip to the island of Jeju.

An investigation revealed that Park was absent from her office while the ferry was sinking and did not order any actions that might have saved the passengers. While happy with Park's downfall, the victims' families are dissatisfied with the court's ruling that Park's handling of the disaster wasn't grounds for her impeachment.

Then there is the ongoing struggle to overturn Park's agreement to deploy the U.S. missile defense system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), on the pretext of countering North Korea's military threat.

China sees the deployment of THAAD as a grave threat to its own security and has taken steps to punish South Korea economically for accepting it.

In sum, there are many tasks ahead of South Koreans, and nothing is automatic. The transformative potential unleashed by mass protests could be lasting or fleeting, depending on whether people put their energy into electing a new president who is little better than Park, or whether they use this great opportunity to build political organizations that are independent from the ruling class.

However, the South Korean people have already shown us the way to oust an arrogant and corrupt president. We in the U.S. have much to learn from their struggles.