And says hello to Moon Jae-in, the liberal who wants to reunify with North Korea and is leading the polls ahead of a snap presidential election.
T he writing had been on the wall for weeks. Revelations that initially appeared mildly embarrassing for President Park Geun-hye quickly spiralled into disaster. Millions of protesters took to Seoul’s streets and her approval ratings plummeted as details emerged of a bribery scandal involving a close confidante and some of South Korea’s largest companies.
Pockets of support for Korea’s first female president remain, demonstrated tragically by the deaths of two pro-Park demonstrators as they clashed with police after her dismissal. But after her own Saenuri Party called for her to step down and a special prosecution investigation found her guilty, Ms. Park awaited Friday’s decision by the Constitutional Court with grim apprehension.
The court’s unanimous decision to expel the president breaks new ground for Korean democracy - it is the first time an elected leader has been removed from office - and initiates a brawl for power. South Korea has no vice presidential office, so a snap election on May 9 will choose Ms. Park’s successor. The electorate, disillusioned with the status quo, seems set to vote for change, heralding a new approach to the enormous challenges facing the peninsula.
The presidential race officially kicked off with confirmation that President Park had been ousted, but contenders for the Blue House have been revving up their campaign machinery for weeks, preparing for party primaries.
The outlook for Ms. Park’s own faction looks bleak. Her critics are “framing the election as the venue to punish the corrupt conservative ruling faction,” Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at Sogang University, told The World Weekly. “It seems that the overwhelming majority of the Korean electorate buys this.” Rebranding itself the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has failed to revive the party’s fortunes: a Gallup Korea survey puts support for the party at 16%.
The LKP’s rivals, the liberal Minjoo Party, are in poll position. Their own primary race may well choose the next president, and Ms. Park’s 2012 rival Moon Jae-in the clear favourite: with a 32% approval rating, he is well ahead of the nearest contender, Ahn Hee-jung.
Separation of chaebol and state
‘Choigate’ has further eroded public trust in the ‘chaebols’, South Korea’s dynastic conglomerates, whose government ties are now under close scrutiny. Mr. Moon has said ‘chaebol reform’ would be a priority of his presidency, and his party is already pursuing reforms in the legislature to shift influence away from overly powerful heirs. Further comprehensive economic restructuring could “resolve income inequality and improve living [standards]”, Hideki Okuzono, a professor at the University of Shizuoka, told Nikkei.
However, the chaebols are a cornerstone of South Korea’s economy, and the country risks cutting off its nose to spite its face. "It's difficult to change South Korea's economic structure because it relies heavily on chaebol as a growth driver," Professor Okuzono said.
Will Moon return the sunshine?
On chaebol reform, the Minjoo Party’s zeal chimes with the spirit of the times, but on South Korea’s neighbourly relations they find less whole-hearted backing. A Minjoo government’s light approach to North Korea would be a departure from Ms. Park’s hardline stance and something of a return to the previous ‘sunshine policy’ of cross-border cooperation. Mr. Moon has endorsed a two-step process of reconciliation and ultimately reunification with North Korea.
Such policies may ring alarm bells across the Pacific, but the Minjoo Party does not embrace Kim-style authoritarianism; Mr. Moon, previously a human rights lawyer, has condemned Kim Jong-Un’s brutal leadership. “Moon will try to do more to engage North Korea than his two predecessors,” Professor Kim told TWW, “but he will also realize that the ROK-US alliance has to be the cornerstone of South Korea’s diplomatic and security policies.”
In practice, softening relations will mean pressing ahead with cooperative ventures such as the Kaesung Industrial Complex. Even here though, Professor Kim noted that the next president would “exercise caution, since North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats have increased substantially compared to the era of sunshine policy”.
A new chapter
The recent saga has been bruising for all involved, and many challenges lie ahead. The future of South Korea’s new, US-led missile defence system, and consequently of relations with China, are uncertain: the Minjoo Party is split on the issue.
But as a scandalous period in Korean politics draws itself to a close, many are taking heart from the vigour of South Korea’s young democracy, which has removed an apparently corrupt leader without major bloodshed. Addressing a rally in Seoul, Lee Tae-ho, leader of one of the largest anti-Park movements, put it simply: “We did it. We the citizens, the sovereign of this country, opened a new chapter in history."