South Korea’s Constitutional Court has confirmed the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. The decision removes that country’s top ruler at a time of growing tension, not only with its worrisome neighbor to the north but also with China. South Korea must now prepare for a snap election, and that campaign will prove all consuming. Some governments will be tempted to meddle in the process. Tokyo must be prepared to suffer in silence even as its relationship with Seoul becomes a football in the campaign.
Park was charged with sharing national secrets with her confidant Choi Soon-sil and colluding with her to extort millions of dollars from the country’s leading companies. While Park apologized for lapses in judgment, she denied any wrongdoing, an attitude that infuriated critics. Her refusal to submit to questioning and to give prosecutors access to the Blue House compounded the image of someone with something to hide.
The Constitutional Court deliberated for three months before declaring last week that the impeachment resolution passed by Parliament was valid. The court’s ruling marked the first time that a South Korean leader has been removed from office; former President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached in 2004, but the court overturned that vote.
The court’s decision was unanimous. All eight justices voted in favor of impeachment. (Normally the court has nine members, but the term of one justice expired during the deliberations.) A divided court could have fueled complaints that the proceedings were political, a dangerous accusation in the partisanship that marks South Korean politics. In this case, however, overwhelming majorities — 77 percent according to one Gallup poll — backed impeachment.
That consensus will dissipate as the country prepares for the presidential election, which the government decided will be held May 9. Typically, South Korean politicians have a year to prepare for ballots. That time is needed to evaluate candidates and ensure that each side rallies around a single candidate. A failure to build a consensus can prove fatal to a candidate’s chances. The abbreviated time until the next vote means that the scramble to select candidates will be chaotic and interparty conflict will intensify. Park’s cryptic comments after the court ruling — “the truth will be revealed without fail, albeit it will take time” — will inspire her followers to contest the election with even greater fervor.
The current front-runner is Moon Jae-in, former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea. He was Roh’s chief of staff and lost to Park in the 2012 presidential race. He is likely to benefit from disillusionment with Park’s rule — as evidenced by the public support for her impeachment — as well as the disappointment that has followed two terms of conservative rule in Seoul. The economy continues to struggle, relations with North Korea are increasingly tense and the relationship with China, South Korea’s largest trading partner, has deteriorated as well. Moon could also benefit from nostalgia for Roh, who committed suicide in 2009 after being investigated for corruption.
Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister and acting president, and who has been seen as the conservative stalking horse, said Wednesday that he won’t run in the May election. A wild card is Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-Myeong, who is likened to U.S. President Donald Trump in his style and populism.
Whoever wins will face several challenges. The first is constitutional reform that would dilute the power of the “imperial presidency.” This process is fraught and the next occupant of the Blue House will have to follow through on pledges that ultimately reduce his or her power.
The second challenge is to take on the “chaebol,” the conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. Historically, these companies have been considered as engines of the country’s economic dynamism and have been given great latitude to pursue profit and power. Ordinary South Koreans have grown tired of their excesses and no longer see benefit in allowing those privileges to persist.
The third challenge is the perennial test posed by North Korea. Despite nine years of hard-line governments in Seoul, Pyongyang is as belligerent as ever and ever more dangerous. South Koreans may now be willing to give engagement another try, which will likely strain relations with Washington and Tokyo.
The fourth challenge is China, which has been infuriated by the decision by the Park government to deploy a U.S.-built advanced missile defense system in South Korea. Beijing, which claims the missile defense system poses a threat to its own security, has exerted increasing pressure on South Korea in response. Given Seoul’s determination to proceed with the deployment, China now aims to influence presidential politics by intimidating South Korean voters rather than seeking to change security policy.
A final challenge is South Korea’s relationship with Japan. Park moved relations forward by reaching the “comfort women” agreement with Tokyo in 2015 and by signing information sharing agreements between the two countries’ security establishments. The antipathy toward Park means that all her accomplishments will be attacked in the upcoming election; deals with Japan will be even more intensely challenged. Tokyo must suffer with grace those assaults and reach out to the new administration, no matter who wins, to remind them of our two countries’ common concerns, shared values and interests. Chief among them should be the respect for the democratic process that South Koreans have adhered to throughout this difficult time.