Park impeachment: what is next?Park Geun-hye has become the first democratically elected South Korean president to be forced from office, after the country’s constitutional court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her over a corruption and cronyism scandal that could see her face criminal charges. Our interviewees are Prof. Dr. Rovshan Ibrahimov, associate professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and Mr. Anthony Rinna, Seoul-based independent researcher.

Interviewer: Shahana Bilalova



Bilalova: How would you characterize Ms. Park`s presidency in South Korea`s history? And what does her impeachment mean and promise to the country?

Ibrahimov: Ms. Park was not so bad, but expectations of people have not been actually fulfilled during her presidency. There were also some problems in the foreign policy of South Korea. The effect of unfulfilled expectations was especially strong when it comes to economy: the support of small and middle enterprises, promised by the government, didn`t happen. As usually the big enterprises (chaebols) have enjoyed exceptional support from the central rightist government.   

In general, even before the scandal and political crisis in South Korea, Park Geun-hye was not a very popular president. But overall, she was the first woman president in the South Korean history, so it was quite a remarkable phenomenon. Another issue is that her father, Park Chung-hee was also a president of Korea (1962-1979), actually assassinated by Kim Jae-gyu, the chief of his own security services. He was the author of the economic miracle in South Korea, that’s why people were feeling some kind of owe to him. That was one of the reasons that Ms. Park managed to run a successful presidential campaign and get elected on 20 August 2012. 

Rinna: The biggest thing about her presidency that will factor into historic legacy is her connection to her father, Park Chung-hee. She has been called "daughter of a dictator" and "princess" because of her family connection. While she should obviously be judged solely on the basis of her own strengths and shortcomings, if the post-Park era in Korea's policies history does indeed witness geopolitical shifts in South Korea's position (i.e. diminishing ties to the United States, closer links to China, more rapprochement with North Korea, etc) this could mark the beginning of the end of an era in South Korea's political culture that has roots in the 1960s. Many analysts, however, say that change will be slow in coming, so it will likely be a while before we can properly assess this. 


Bilalova: Does her low popularity is somehow related to her dictator father, Park Chung-hee? 

Ibrahimov: No, her popularity was mostly related to her father, since, as I’ve mentioned, he was the mastermind behind the spectacular economic achievements of South Korea. Even though Park Chung-hee was a dictator, he managed to build up a completely new governance system instead of the outdated old one, and created a manageable liberal economy. Soon after his death, the process of democratization of the Korean society galvanized. Considering his huge achievements, it was relatively hard to expect so much success in a short time. 


Bilalova: What does Ms. Park’s impeachment mean and promise to the country?

Ibrahimov: Well, that was a unique case for South Korea, because there was a story in 2004 that impeachment was applied to another Korean president, Roh Moo-Hyun. However at that time constitutional court did not accept starting an impeachment process against him. In the current case, however, there are many proofs demonstrating Ms. Park’s relationship with her friend who was involved in the governance of the state without taking any official position. Park Geun-hye also shared all her expectations and decisions with her, which was not acceptable for the Koreans. Moreover, a corruption scandal broke out whereby high-level managers of big companies such as Samsung were involved, so things were getting complicated in South Korea. Furthermore, the constitutional court also made an investigation. Thus, a situation arose when they could not adopt any decision but impeachment. According to the recent research, popularity of Ms. Park was very low, so 77% of the population supported the impeachment. Before that, the figure was even higher, around 95% (it means only 5% supported Park). One of the reasons why this happened is South Korea’s transformation from a modern to a post-modern society, a very sharp and fast change that set up a deeper context for the process. This change will affect not only political but also economic, business, education and other fields as well as a social life in South Korea. I believe that soon after a new president is elected, there will be talk over amendments to the constitution which was adopted in 1987 and some changes are really needed because the current executive body did not fulfill the social demands of the South Koreans. 


Bilalova: The scandal labeled as Choi-gate involved chaebols, South Korea`s family-run conglomerates. Some people again raised their concern about the extremely the high political influence of chaebols. How would you comment on this? 

Rinna: Big business is an obvious target in situations like this, as the marriage between business and politics causes great resentment among the general public. The post-Park era may see more calls for regulatory measures to be taken against the chaebols, yet given their immense power and influence, as well as their importance for South Korea's economy, I remain skeptical that any real change can happen. A new president who tries to rein in the chaebols will face a lot of difficulties, their political power notwithstanding.

Ibrahimov: South Korea’s economic system has been concentrated around the activities of chaebols. There are a number of chaebols, family-based large businesses. For instance, Samsung constitutes about 1/6 of the GDP of South Korea, being the main driver of the Korean economy. This demonstrates that intertwinings of politics and economy, represented by chaebols, are inevitable. However, this must not reach the level of crime, which actually happened when some chaebols got involved in a corruption scandal. I also believe that if this scandal had happened 10 years ago, this process would not have been exposed and come to the level of investigation, and a sentence for the high-level managers of Samsung would not have taken place. But as I mentioned, the societal changes mean that people now are looking for reforms not only economically, but also regarding a huge concentration of opportunities by the chaebols. Even Ms. Park promised that she would focus more on small and middle enterprises and would grant them more rights, but in reality, this did not happen. As you might see, new candidates for the presidency in South Korea also promise to rearrange the role of chaebols in everyday life, particularly in the field of economy and politics in South Korea. 


Bilalova: The scandal and a consequent impeachment of Ms. Park are certainly a domestic affair. But taking into account the conditions on the Korean peninsula, a natural question arises: how may the change of political leadership in Seoul influence its relations with Pyongyang and the overall situation in the region?

Rinna: Of course, in this regard the biggest question is what role China will play in regional politics. China has been at the forefront of opposition to THAAD, and if the new administration in Seoul can stop THAAD's installation in Korea, it will be a major blow to American prestige and could potentially put the ROK-U.S. alliance on the rocks (though I hesitate to say that it would completely jeopardize it). 

Some pro-Park Koreans believe that the liberal presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-in, has close ties to China, and that, in the event of a Moon victory, South Korea will tilt toward Beijing. Other people have actually compared the current situation to the early-17th century struggle between the Ming and Qing dynasties in China and their attempts not only at holding power in China, but also in gaining recognition from Joseon (the old name for Korea). 

The other major issue is whether or not a new government will take a more conciliatory stance toward North Korea, as occurred during the Kim Dae-jung presidency. As North Korea makes strides in its missile capabilities, this will also be an important factor in South Korea's relations with both China and the U.S., which have sharply divergent views on how best to manage the North Korean security crisis. 

Ibrahimov: The relationships between the two states are not on an acceptable level since North Korea in 2014 possessed intercontinental ballistic missiles. Before this event, there had not been security alerts on such a level. So all kinds of ties were severed, and even the Kaesong Industrial economic zone in North Korea, run by South Korean private companies, was temporarily closed. Both sides are now in a very tense relationship. The U.S. has now settled the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic system in the territory of South Korea, so provoking a very negative reaction on the part of China. As a result, the relationship between Beijing and Seoul worsened, so China indirectly sanctioned South Korean products supplied to its market and also started propaganda among its own citizens to demotivate them from visiting South Korea. As already known, one of the important items in the South Korean economy is tourism, since many Chinese tourists visit South Korea. Another issue was that President Donald Trump expressed his dissatisfaction with the existence of military bases in East Asia (mainly in Japan and South Korea). He also reflected his concerns over why the U.S. should pay for keeping its military in this region. That means these states have to complain about this, however, there was no reaction from South Korea due to the crisis and the non-existence of a leader. It is crucial to tell that the next president in South Korea will be elected on 9 May 2017, the problem will not still be solved, but time goes on. Now we have two leaders: one of them is the Democratic Party leader, Moon Jae-in who was a candidate in the previous election but lost by a small margin. He is the leader of the race now and represents the center left of the political spectrum. Another one is Ahn Cheol-soo from Chungcheongnam-do province who was the unexpectable candidate with relatively high percentage of support. Both of these candidates considered escalation and rapprochement with Pyongyang through dialogues, even direct dialogues with the president of North Korea, which is a new rhetoric for Seoul. Moreover, they propose re-organizing relations with China. It is also expected that a new leader will be from the leftist party, so the new balance of forces will change many of South Korea`s domestic and foreign policies that were in place during the previous 10 years... 

We need to emphasize also that whenever there is a crisis in South Korea (The last crisis happened in 2009 due to the financial crisis) it affects South Korea in a positive way and the development process becomes faster.