This is the English-language version of an article I published this week with Newsweek Japan on ‘Choi-gate.’
This pre-dates the impeachment vote of yesterday, but the basic point still holds: the Korean public just gave the world a lesson in what democracy looks like. In the 8+ years I have lived here, this is its finest hour. Koreans should be proud of themselves for peaceful protests in the millions on behalf of clean and transparent government. It’s all the more impressive given that the US is about to install an authoritarian game-show host as president. Who ever thought the Koreans would teach the Americans what democracy is all about?
Yesterday, I told Bloomberg that corruption is now, very obviously, the most important domestic politics issue in Korea. Yes, it is still trumped by North Korea, but it is now painfully, painfully obvious that Korea needs much cleaner government. In fact, corruption is so bad, I am surprised that there is no Donald Trump figure entering Korean politics. Yet again, the Koreans prove themselves more democratically mature than Americans.
So yes, Korea’s political class is a corrupt, self-serving mess, but its public is not and that is vastly more important. For all their flim-flam about Dokdo, the curative powers of kimchi, the made-up anthropology of a ‘glorious 5000-year history,’ and all the rest, when it came to the big thing – clean, robust democracy – they got it right in a big way. Props to the Koreans.
The essay follows the jump.
Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of South Korean democratization. Yet that democracy is now facing its greatest constitutional crisis. President Park Geun Hye is involved in a sprawling, frequently bizarre influence-peddling scandal involving long-time confidante and obvious swindler Choi Soon Sil. Park will almost certainly be driver from office because of it. The investigation has revealed disturbing allegations of corruption and nepotism at the same time that the South Korean parliament, the National Assembly, has passed an extremely strict anti-graft law in yet another effort to beat back seemingly entrenched corruption. Korean politicians and public figures have described themselves embarrassed at the seemingly endless parade of corruption scandals and Park’s epic miscalculation in permitting Choi such influence in her administration. The North Koreans, predictably, are gloating; ‘Choi-gate’ apparently proves the superiority of their ‘system.’
The South Korean Public Embraces Democracy
But there is a clear upside to this story, one that suggests that Korean democracy is deeply rooted and maturing despite the public circus of the last month. The Korean public has responded with a massive outpouring of peaceful resistance to the shenanigans of its leaders. Corruption may stalk the Korean political establishment, even the president, but the public has made very clear it will not accept that. In the weeks since the Choi scandal broke, millions of Koreans have protested peacefully. On November 26, estimates suggest two million people demonstrated, a staggering 4% of the entire national population. Even overseas Koreans protested in Europe and the United States.
Numbers of that scale are astonishing in modern democracies. 4% of the Japanese population would be 5 million people on the streets; 4% of the United States would be 13 million people. Japan and the US have never seen demonstrations of that size. That suggests a strong, genuine commitment to Korean democracy and clean government, a popular desire to participate that is often lost in the elitism that normally characterizes Korean politics.
These protests have happened five weeks in a row, another astonishing feat. Mobilizing millions of people for more than a month requires a deep well of public support for democracy. Further, the protests have been entirely peaceful. There have been no reports of assaults, robberies, and so on. The kind of social anarchy we saw during Arab Spring protests of similar scale did not occur. The protestors even cleaned up their trash, signaling a commitment to their society even as they rejected its leadership.
All this is hugely inspiring, even as the constitutional drama reveals the weakness of the Korean political class and the need for reform of South Korea’s institutions. In the eight years I have lived in South Korea, this is its finest hour. South Korea often enmeshes itself in controversies western observers find bizarre: the debate over THAAD missile defense here is dominated by (Chinese) misinformation; accusations about nascent Japanese ‘re-militarization’ are unhinged; the Korean media is deeply vested in a wildly exaggerated nationalist story of Korean pop-culture ‘conquering the world.’ But when things really mattered, the Korean public came through, demonstrating a deep commitment to core modern democratic values – peaceful protest, civic participation, and clean government. If there was ever a moment to see the large difference between North and South Korea in stark relief, this was it. Indeed at time, when the West has voted for Brexit and Donald Trump, and the National Front is running strongly in France, South Korea is illustrating to the world how an engaged, responsible democratic public behaves. Who ever would have imagined the South Koreans would be teaching the Americans about democracy?
The Public Rejects Park
The next steps in the crisis are likely either Park’s resignation or an impeachment vote. As the scandal has unfolded over the last two months, Park has stood her ground. She has insisted that she committed no crime. She conceded that she gave too much space and consideration to her friend but insists that this was not illegal. The Korean public has, by a large margin, rejected this interpretation. Park’s approval rating has crashed to an historic low of 4%. I am unaware of any chief executive in a modern democracy who returned such low numbers. Not even Richard Nixon in the depths of Watergate was so unpopular. For this reason, most observers think she will be forced out one way or another.
Park cuts a somewhat tragicomic figure here. Unlike most politicians felled by scandals of politics, money, sex, war, and so on, Park has bizarrely discredited herself on behalf of an obvious con artist who exploited her for decades. It may indeed be true that she technically committed no crime, but the sheer extent and weirdness of the scandal has been damning. Choi seems to have had influence over a vast expanse of presidential decisions, from the mundane, such as the presidential wardrobe, to the serious, such as the president’s speeches and staffing choices. Choi may have even impacted Park’s tougher line on North Korea, in that Choi apparently predicted North Korea’s imminent collapse and edited some of Park’s speeches on the subject.
And the scamming and nepotism have been both egregious and astonishingly petty. Despite all the wealth accrued through her graft, Choi seems to have embezzled much of the funding for the president’s wardrobe while clothing Park in cheap outfits (which the Korean fashion press picked up on years ago). Choi exploited her presidential connections to shake down large corporations for ‘donations.’ She used those connections to bully a university into accepting her daughter as a student and even alter her daughters’ scoring in an equestrian competition. Choi’s personal trainer (!) even got in on the act, getting appointed a staffer in the Blue House, the Korean executive residence.
Park may indeed be correct that she herself violated no law, but the whole thing is so preposterous and bizarre that she has been thoroughly discredited and her presidency all but ended even if she somehow retains the office itself. The public has concluded that Park was conned by an obvious grifter and charlatan, and there is widespread amazement that Park, who otherwise seemed like a canny, intelligent politician, was taken in by such an obvious fraud. That Choi has no obvious qualifications for the wide influence she wielded makes Park look all the more like an easy mark in a con scheme. Choi is not a lawyer, economist, policy expert, and so on. Her ‘qualification’ seems to be that her shamanistic cult-leader father convinced Park that he could communicate with Park’s deceased mother (yes, really). This would be laughable, were it not so politically consequential.
What if Park Stays in Office?
The upshot is that even if Park is technically innocent, the public has concluded that she has been a shadow president while Choi was the real power behind the throne. In the protests, the most damning image has been of Choi looming above Park, pulling strings attached to Park’s limbs as if she were a puppet.
Park may constitutionally survive. At the time of this writing, an impeachment vote looks likely to occur on December 9. The opposition bloc needs twenty-eight government party members to vote for impeachment to overcome the required two-thirds impeachment threshold (200 out of 300 members of the National Assembly). Park floated a bizarre, not-quite resignation proposal on November 29 in which she suggested that she would accept whatever fate the National Assembly deemed fit for her presidency, including a shortening of her term. This does not follow the constitutional process, in which impeachment or resignation leads to an acting president followed by a new election within sixty days. It is widely suspected that her curious non-resignation offer was a last ditch attempt to muddy the waters. It might convince some of her party’s wavering parliamentarians to vote against impeachment because she would imminent resign. This is dangerous territory: constitutional ‘reform’ hastily tossed about by a president desperate to slip out of impeachment.
Even if the National Assembly votes to remove her, South Korea’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, must also vote in a two-thirds majority (six out nine justices) to remove her. Two of those justices’ terms end in the next six months, which would almost certainly provoke a sharp fight over the appointment of pro- or anti-Park judges. The Court also might not wish to proceed until the final report of the Choi-gate special prosecutor is completed, which may take months. Yet another layer of confusion is that the government party’s position is now that Park should remain in office until April, so that it can find a viable candidate to run in the snap election which would follow her resignation.
All of this political confusion raises the importance of constitutional reform. The Korean public has spoken clearly. Indeed, they have carried the mantle of democracy in the last few months as the formal system has devolved into chaos. The Korean political class has flailed, while millions of Koreans have peacefully demonstrated for clean government and transparency. It is time the Republic of Korea had institutions to match its electorate’s democratic intensity.
The most obvious reform needed is major crackdown on corruption. This has become the bane of Korean politics. When family and friends ‘cash out’ their connections, as happens far too often here, Korea looks like a banana republic. A great irony of Park’s presidency is that she explicitly claimed it would cleaner than usual because she was unmarried and alienated from her family. Instead, this seems to have made her so lonely that a quack was able to befriend her.
The new anti-graft law should help, but the real problem is the Korean developmentalist state. So long as the Korean government insists on ‘guiding’ the economy, state officials and businessmen will regularly interact regarding money. This obviously opens huge, regular opportunities for graft. In Choi’s case, if Korea’s largest companies were not so dependent on presidential goodwill, Choi would never have been able to blackmail them with her friendship with Park.
The other big reform, which would make this crisis much simpler to resolve, is the creation of a vice president. South Korea is a hybrid, ‘semi-presidential’ system. That is, it has both a president and prime minister. Constitutionally, the PM becomes the acting president should the president die or otherwise exit the office. There is then to be a new election within sixty days for a new president for a full five-year term. As the Choi crisis is demonstrating, this is an unnecessarily complex transfer of power process.
The PM is a weak, poorly defined office in Korea. He often acts as a ‘fall guy’ for the president when scandal hits, and he does not have the clear mandate to take over the presidency a vice-president has. That the PM can be fired easily by the president makes the office even more unstable. The current PM was actually fired by Park but retained as acting PM, because the president and parliament could not agree on a successor. The 60-day snap election of a full term presidency raises the stakes even more. South Korea’s conservatives are trying now to forestall Park’s resignation so that they do not lose the presidency for the next five years. It would far easier to simply impeach Park if there a waiting vice-president who would only finish her term. There would be no incentive to fight for an ideal timing of her resignation. The existence of meaningful vice presidential office made Richard Nixon’s resignation over Watergate much easier. His vice president assumed the office; the country moved on; and the next election was held normally on schedule.
Park Should Probably Resign
Park’s desire to hang on is understandable. Her resignation will destroy her reputation in Korean history. Given that her father’s presidency was in fact in a dictatorship, her fall from grace will impact the family legacy too. More immediately, Park may face criminal charges after resignation and go to prison. As president, she is immune. Perhaps she imagines that if she can just hang on a few more months, the cold weather will drive the protestors from the streets, and then the upcoming election will convince everyone to just let her ride out the rest of her term.
This is risky. She is discredited. She is widely understood now as a naif controlled by a con artist. The protests to date have been peaceful, but the potential for unrest is obvious. If she survives impeachment by some gimmicky parliamentary maneuver or the replacement of high justices, public opinion will worsen. The protests could expand, and the government would be paralyzed. Were that to occur for months on end, it would be unprecedented for a modern democracy. Park’s term formally ends in late February 2018. That opens the possibility of 15 months of protest and paralysis if she fights to the end. The protests so far have been a remarkable display of civic responsibility, but the longer they grind on, the more they will attract troublemakers and radicals. Disorder over the course of a 15-month political stalemate is an obvious possibility. Korea has not seen protests of this scope since the street contests of democratization. Defying the will of 96% of the population, with millions on the street for months on end, is a frightening prospect.