South Korean President Park Geun-hye Removed From Office

Bryan Mailloux - 3A Mechatronics
Posted on: March 12, 2017

On March 10th, South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld an earlier decision to impeach the Korean President, Park Geun-hye, effectively ousting her from office. The December 2016 parliamentary decision to impeach President Park came after a corruption scandal surrounding Park’s close friend, Choi Soon-sil, came to light. After the decision, waves of pro- and anti-Park protesters took to the streets, in what was a very divisive couple of days for the nation.

Scandal

Choi Soon-sil’s position and relationship with Park have been a source of controversy in Korea since the 1970’s, when Choi’s father, Choi Tae-min, founded the Eternal Life Church, which incorporates elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Cheondism, an shamanic religion native to Korea. Tae-min became a mentor figure to Park when her mother was assassinated by a North Korean sympathizer attempting to kill her father, the then president/dictator Park Chung-hee. Later on, in 1994, Choi Soon-sil succeeded her father as spiritual leader of the Eternal Life Church, while remaining a spiritual mentor and close friend to Park as her political career was kicking off.

This relationship continued through Park’s presidency, despite Choi not having any official government titles. Choi’s standing within government circles eventually came under journalistic investigation, as the result of a string of implications dating from even before Park became president. The uncovering of the chain of corruption within the government and the Korean Prosecution Service, a branch of the Ministry of Justice, reads almost like the script to a TV show: investigations into an illegal gambling ring in Macao uncover evidence that the CEO of a popular cosmetics brand was guilty of tax evasion; after his arrest, said CEO pays his lawyer over $5 million in fees to try to obtain a lighter sentence, prompting another investigation into the enormous sum paid; this new investigation reveals evidence into even more lobbying going on throughout the Prosecution Service, and implicates a government official; media reporting on this government official eventually points to institutions later proven to be a front for Choi Soon-sil’s bribery operations, prompting government backlash towards the media and the resignation of at least one high-ranking journalist; apparently taking the hint, most media outlets back off, but some others decide to conduct a more thorough investigation into Choi Soon-sil and her operations.

Over the course of their snooping, the media came up with a tablet owned by Choi showing evidence that some of President Park’s speeches had been directly edited on it, and other sensitive government information that shouldn’t have been in the hands of a civilian. Choi, who had been in Germany at the time, fled back to Korea once she caught wind that German police wanted her for questioning over illicit business practices. The Prosecution Service seemingly tried to protect Choi at every turn, for example by delaying the investigation into her affiliated institutions for almost a month; eventually the public had had enough of the Prosecution Service dragging its heels and took to the streets in protest.

As it turns out, Choi was using her influence on Park to force bribes from some of the largest Korean companies, who gave substantial amounts of money to foundations affiliated with Choi. Of course, everyone implicated was profiting from this arrangement – for instance, Samsung Group chief Jay Y. Lee was accused of paying $36.4 million to Choi’s organizations to gain government support for a 2015 merger between Samsung and Cheil Industries. Other conglomerates tangled in the web of corruption included Hyundai, SK Group, and Lotte.

Prosecution

Park’s close friendship with Choi, and very obvious implication in Choi’s dealings, lowered public opinion of her, and by the end of November 2016 her public approval rating was at 4%. With the now two million protesters bringing the country to a standstill, in December 2016 South Korea’s National Assembly voted 234-56 to impeach the president. Park was suspended from office, with Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn assuming presidential powers. However, from December until last Friday’s ruling, Park has enjoyed political immunity as President.

The Constitutional Court’s 8-0 unanimous decision to uphold the decision to impeach Park means that she is effectively ousted from the office of President, and can now be prosecuted as a common citizen. All eyes are now on potential candidates to succeed Park as president – the country is to hold a snap election within the next 60 days.

Protests

Park’s impeachment has polarized South Korea – despite the waves of anti-Park protesters celebrating the decision, Park still enjoyed a relatively high approval rating among the elderly, and pro-Park protesters took to the streets as well. Amid the demonstrations, three people have died and dozens more were injured.

The division within South Korea comes at a pivotal moment – this past week, North Korea has been flaring up tensions by continuing to test ballistic and nuclear missiles. Many are worried that North Korea will take advantage of the turmoil farther south; Acting President Hwang called for South Koreans to stand unified during the chaos.