Friday is zero-hour for embattled South Korean president Park Geun-hye. An impeachment bill in parliament threatens to present the country’s first female president with the dubious honour of being the first democratically elected president to leave office early. If Friday’s impeachment is successful, it will have major ramifications for South Korea’s domestic political scene. There is a chance the impact on regional politics will be more profound.
THE PROBLEM WITH PARK
Park is accused of allowing long-time friend Choi Soon-sil to influence state policy. Choi’s father, a cult leader, was a mentor to Park and Choi’s ex-husband was Park’s chief of staff. On November 20, Choi was charged with intervening in state affairs and extortion. Park has been named a suspect in the case.
Most problematic for Park is the allegation that she divulged classified information to Choi. The wider scandal includes claims that Choi used her access to the president to pressure companies into donating to her foundations. There are also suggestions that Park is enthralled by the cult established by Choi’s father, who claimed he could communicate with Park’s assassinated mother.
The scandal has reached boiling point. Hundreds of thousands have protested weekly in Seoul to demand Park’s resignation. Last week, the president entertained the idea, saying she would resign if parliament created a plan for a safe transfer of power. The opposition rejected this offer – labelling it a delaying tactic – and instead called for her immediate resignation.
A behind-the-scenes solution could see Park remain in office but with a new prime minister effectively running the government for the remainder of her term. Yet with tensions high, it seems unlikely this would be acceptable to any of the parties involved. This leaves impeachment as the only clear resolution to the crisis. However, this will not be easy.
TO IMPEACH OR NOT TO IMPEACH
The process to impeach Park is complicated. First, parliament must pass an impeachment bill with a two-thirds majority. The key number is 200 and the opposition and independents only comprise 172 lawmakers. They will need support from 28 members of Park’s conservative Saenuri Party. The opposition claims they have between 35 and 40 Saenuri votes. If the bill passes, Park will be suspended, however the Constitutional Court has six months to rule whether her alleged crimes justify impeachment. The outcome of this ruling is not clear.
Impeachment is risky for the opposition. In March 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached for asking voters to support his party despite the presidency’s neutrality. The impeachment process angered South Koreans and they gifted Roh’s party with a landslide victory in April. The Constitutional Court later ruled in Roh’s favour, returning him to office.
Other factors will weigh on lawmakers. If Park is impeached, potential successors will have just 60 days to prepare for an election. No prospective candidate is ready, leaving the field wide open. Park is also nearing her lame duck year; her impeachment would be more symbolic than transformative. Consequently, some members of the opposition may find it advantageous to delay pursuing Park’s impeachment until next year.
If Park is impeached, the race for the presidency will be on. Candidates will have a variety of economic issues on which to campaign: Park’s failure to deliver economic growth, tackling nepotism in the form of the chaebol (family-run conglomerates), and what to do about growing inequality. Accusations that Park limited public access and allowed a small circle of advisers to dominate the presidency will put pressure on candidates to run highly transparent campaigns.
On foreign policy, Park’s hawkish approach to North Korean relations – including closing the collaborative Kaesong industrial complex, encouraging harsher sanctions, and pressing Pyongyang on its human rights abuses – will be another major campaign discussion. How South Korea manages improving relations with Japan and accompanying tensions with China will also be a key factor for the next president to address.
Currently, Moon Jae-in, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, leads polls to replace Park. However, Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic mayor of Seongnam popular for his reform of the city’s finances, has declared his intention to become the party’s candidate. The two men share similar economic platforms, including a desire to rein in the chaebol and improve social welfare. Lee’s populist rhetoric and advocacy for South Korea’s unemployed youth may cause him to upstage his leader in the party’s presidential primaries.
Both Moon and Lee would be likely to pursue improved China-South Korea relations. In July, the US agreed to deploy anti-ballistic missiles systems known as THAAD to South Korea to counter the North Korean missile threat, but Moon has been critical of the decision for potentially jeopardising relations with China. Lee is stridently anti-Japanese and he strongly opposed an intelligence-sharing agreement (GSOMIA) signed with Tokyo in mid-November. Both men have also both promised to negotiate with North Korea and the party is critical of Saenuri’s reliance on the US alliance.
Ahn Cheol-soo, from the minor People’s Party and parliament’s wealthiest member, may also stand. He aborted his presidential campaign in 2012 to support Moon against Park. However, the People’s Party split from the Democratic Party earlier this year and Ahn will likely test its popularity at the polls. In July, Ahn said the THAAD deployment had ‘negative diplomatic and economic repercussions’ and called for a referendum on its deployment. Polls suggest he would lose that vote.
The race’s wildcard is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who until recently led Moon as preferred president. Formerly the foreign minister under President Roh and domestically popular as “president of the world”, Ban was expected to run as the Saenuri candidate. Ban would likely take a softer approach to North Korean relations than Park, while Beijing would be expected welcome a president it has experience working with. Continuity on economic and alliance issues would round out his platform.
However, Park’s scandal has cast doubt on Ban’s candidacy. Saenuri is deeply divided and may even split in the coming months. Ban, who will not be able to campaign until next year due to his UN commitments, needs the institutional support of a strong party to aid his presidential bid. Nevertheless, Ban’s status as an outsider, untarnished by the political machinations rocking the nation, could be the decisive difference in the presidential race.
Friday’s impeachment vote is only the start of the political game. Parliamentarians have many reasons not to impeach Park, at least not yet. If they proceed anyway, the Constitutional Court could cause the opposition to score an own goal. Avoiding that outcome, a snap election will draw South Korea’s next president from a crowded field. The victor will either buttress the region’s geopolitical status quo or flip the major-power rivalry on its head. There is a lot at stake.
Will is the former managing editor of Foreign Brief’s Risk Analysis branch. He has published widely on international political and security issues.