Domestic politics in South Korea are turbulent, an expected state of affairs in the aftermath of the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. The Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the legitimacy of the impeachment motion, and while it has six months to reach a decision, a verdict is expected by March 13, when a justice on the court has to step down. That ruling will impact whether South Korea moves up the date of presidential election scheduled for December.
Apparently that uncertainty is not enough, for opposition politicians in South Korea are now calling for the impeachment of Park’s replacement, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. His offense is refusing to extend the special prosecutor’s investigation into the influence-peddling scandal that ensnared Park. Opposition anger is palpable, but driving the acting president from office would only further destabilize South Korean politics.
The investigation into wrongdoing by Park has been driven by reports that she was unduly influenced by a friend and adviser, Choi Soon-sil, and that the two women extorted millions of dollars from leading Korean corporations by forcing them to provide financial support for two foundations controlled by Choi. The president’s involvement generated calls for a special prosecutor to ensure that any investigation would not be tainted by conflicts of interest. Special prosecutors were appointed in December and their investigation widened over time to include, among other things, charges of creating a blacklist of cultural figures that were considered hostile to the Park government as well as allegations of misdeeds by corporate leaders.
The investigation generated enough evidence to persuade legislators to impeach Park, a decision that is now under review by the Constitutional Court. But as the special prosecutors’ initial 90-day term was set to expire, the team requested an extension, a request that was denied by the acting president, Hwang. His spokesperson explained that decision, noting that Hwang “has decided that it would be best for the country’s stability to not extend the special investigation and for the prosecutors to take over.” That triggered calls by opposition party members to impeach Hwang.
There were good reasons to continue the investigation, which was wrapped up Tuesday. Park and her defense team have refused to cooperate with the investigation. She appeared to be hoping that a groundswell of conservative support would counter her plummeting popularity overall and expose the entire scandal as politically driven. (The evidence suggests very bad judgment at the least — to which Park has tearfully confessed — and wrongdoing at the worst.) Hwang has denied requests to search the Blue House (where the president works) on grounds of national security. Hwang’s critics believe that his decisions are also politically motivated and that he is positioning himself as the conservative presidential candidate whenever the next election is held.
Meanwhile, the prosecutors have arrested leading members of South Korea’s political and business communities, most recently Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics. Lee was indicted Tuesday on charges of bribing Choi — and Park — to secure government approval of a merger of two Samsung affiliates; if the deal went through, it would have helped Lee consolidate his leadership of the Samsung conglomerate, which is the country’s largest corporation and the world’s biggest maker of smartphones, memory chips and flat-screen televisions.
His arrest has stunned the corporate world, demonstrating that no one in Seoul, no matter how exalted, is exempt from the law. That is a welcome development. For too long Korean business leaders have acted with impunity, disregarding the law as they see fit in the belief that they are essential to the smooth functioning of the South Korean economy. That thinking has been facilitated by regular amnesties offered business leaders whenever the economy is in a downturn.
The series of arrests and detentions has taken the chaos in Seoul to unanticipated heights. The historically close ties between South Korea’s corporate community and conservative politicians are a target for reformers; some politicians sense that the Park scandal is an opportunity to transform politics and to finally break the grip on power that the “chaebol,” South Korea’s largest corporations, have long exercised. At the same time, business analysts argue that this is a chance to rationalize these companies, making them more independent of the families that founded them. It will also promote the growth of a more independent managerial class that can distinguish between corporate interests, family interests and the national interest.
Other politicians see this as a moment to rewrite the country’s constitution and to reduce the power of the presidency. South Korea’s president has been all-powerful, which has allowed him or her to move quickly on national priorities. Efficiency has bred corruption, however, and it is time, argue backers of change, for systemic reform.
That is all true, but the pursuit of justice must not be used to settle scores. An “independent inquiry” can be as partisan and political as any other. Justice must apply equally to all South Koreans and not be used for larger political purposes. South Korea cannot afford much more chaos and confusion.
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