By Sanho Kim.
Korea: A Country to Watch
Korea has a short history of democracy compared to other developed countries. Until the rush in the 20th century, when its gates were opened and western ideas finally made it into the country, Korea’s Joseon Dynasty and its predecessors have always been traditional monarchies. There were no Enlightenment-era revolutions—no beheading of kings. However, while its Democratic past may be short, Korea has had its share of controversies and state troubles.
Rooted in the great, fundamental divide between the conservatives and progressives that led the politics of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), the troubles became palpable when world powers began interfering.
Korea was split first between the traditionalists and the radical-minded, and then between to the pro-Japanese and anti-Japanese forces. The Japanese occupation shook the country, undoing the systems and values set by Joseon; when it ended, Korea was left shattered, and the pieces were picked up by two giant countries: Russia and USA. The damage done by the Korean War and the division of the peninsula was, of course, unsettling. From then on Korea would endure a series of corrupt presidents, coup d’états, massive protests, and, finally, global success.
However, the apparent success and “settling” of the country wasn’t enough to heal its wounds—Korea is still on the move. Earlier this month, another milestone was added to its modern history; the president has been officially impeached and removed from office.
The Revelations Add Up
It started last year in October 2016 when word began to spread about a woman called Choi Soon-Sil, the daughter of a religious leader. It was revealed that Choi had been an extremely close confidante of President Park. It was found that Park had allowed Choi access of confidential documents although she held no government position and was a mere civilian. In a public speech, Park acknowledged the news and apologized—but it wasn’t enough.
Soon people discovered that the Park administration kept secrets more corrupt than they had expected. Chung Yoo-Ra, Choi’s daughter, was found to have been illegally supported by Choi’s power. Her school, Ehwa Women’s University, had been pressured into boosting Chung Yoo-Ra’s career. Among other things, Chung was allowed to miss several classes yet still earn perfect attendance records.
By November 2016, state statistics showed that President Park’s approval ratings had plummeted to 5%.
Big Forces Involved
As the Korean people arose and took to the streets, a nationwide trend of candlelight protests began to spread. Huge protests were held throughout the year, and millions participated. 2.3 million people showed up on the protest on December 3 2016 alone.
By this time the investigation was on fire; special prosecutors (prosecutors free of any government influence) began working on the impeachment process, while also delving into more secrets that led them further into the depths of the ruling power’s corruption.
Links between Choi Soon-Sil and Samsung vice chairman Lee Jae-Yong were found, and Lee was accused of bribery. After one failed attempt, the special prosecutors in time succeeded in issuing an arrest warrant for Lee.
A string of relatives, corporations, and government officials came under the prosecutors’ searchlight. The President was temporarily kept out of office and replaced by Prime Minister Hwang (a position similar to vice president), as presidential candidates began preparing their campaigns.
Thus the crimes of Korea’s biggest powers were revealed one by one, and put under well deserved judgment.
On the 10th of March 2017, the Constitutional Court announced their decision as the whole country tuned into the live broadcast. Anti-impeachment forces (the population’s pro-Park portion, which held its own series of sizeable protests, often called Korean-flag rallies) and candlelight protesters alike held their breath. In schools, classes were paused and teachers looked for YouTube broadcasts.
The court’s statement, read by the head of the Constitutional Court Lee Jeong-Mi, was rather short, yet nonetheless dramatic. The explanation took many twists and turns as Lee went through several accusations, rejecting some and admitting others. Ultimately, however, it was announced that the Constitutional Court had accepted the prosecution’s charges, and that the president was now impeached. With 8 out of 8 judges voting for impeachment, it was a unanimous decision.
As President Park became the first in Korean history to get impeached from office, the people rallied in the streets once again. Flags waved all over Seoul, as some greeted the result with great joy, calling it a “glorious moment in Korean history”, while others (the Pro-Park supporters) were steeped in dismay. Some Park supporters called the court’s decision invalid and null, while condemning the judges and saying that “they should go to hell”. The assemblies after the live broadcast also turned quite dangerous; it was reported that 3 people had died in anti-impeachment protests.
The Korean government has announced that the next election, which by law must be held within 60 days, will take place on the 9th of May. Some of the prominent candidates are Moon Jae-In (a left-sided politician and the former rival of Park during the 2013 election), Ahn Hee-Jung (governor of Chungcheongnam-do province), Lee Jae-Myeong (mayor of the city of Seongnam), and Ahn Cheol-Su (another former rival of Park in 2013 who dropped out in the middle of his campaign). Ban Ki-Moon, the former Secretary-General of UN and a powerful conservative candidate, had announced his run for the election, but has since dropped out.
It is true that Korea has yet to shake off its troubles even after all the protests, accusations, revelations, and removals. It is in the midst of a diplomatic crisis, as the Chinese are raging against the arrival of THAAD (a US-run anti-ballistic radar system) on the Korean peninsula. Its economy is threatened after the breakdown of Samsung, which takes up a large portion of its exports.
Despite the claims made by experts, nobody really knows where the country is headed. Only time will tell whether Korea’s adventurous journey is the beginning of unsettling times, or a development much needed for its further progress.
Note to the readers:
We recommend readers to check out our previous articles on this topic. “Rumble In South Korea” explains, in detail, everything you need to know about President Park’s scandal. “Exploding Politics: Samsung Involved in South Korea’s Mass Scandal” delves into Samsung’s association with the impeachment, and the process of requesting an arrest warrant for vice chairman Lee Jae-Yong.
Featured Image: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Teddy Cross at https://flickr.com/photos/114274498@N06/30021968224. The image has been licensed for fair use by the creator under the Creative Commons licence – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). No changes have been made.