Impeachment of Korean president shows power of democracy

Madeline Kim Apr 16, 2017
Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

After months of consistent protests, South Korea, as of March 9, 2017, has successfully impeached the former president Park Geun-Hye; since March 30, she has been under arrest. The world watched in fascination as hundreds of thousands of Koreans expressed their discontent through rallies starting Oct. 26, 2016, which included a candlelight rally involving an estimated of 1.7 million people on the streets. In response to the impeachment, American television actor Chris Meloni comically tweeted: "Dear South Korea, how? Asking for a country." Certainly, Meloni is not alone in feeling this way; the thousands of retweets and likes confirm that others have at least considered this sentiment worthy of their attention.

As a U.S. citizen who voted in the 2016 presidential election and a daughter of two Korean citizens, this tweet called me to compare the nation I proudly call home to the country my parents call home. While people in the U.S. were glued to their screens watching the presidential debates leading up to the election in November 2016, people in Korea gave their government a piece of their minds by congregating in the streets and demanding that Park step down.

Park was a historic president for South Korea; not only was she the first female president, but she was also the first president to be impeached. The daughter of the late former leader Park Chung-hee represented the Saenuri Party, now the Liberty Korea Party, and won the presidential election on Feb. 25, 2013. However, her popularity rapidly went downhill starting in Oct. 2016 when a journalist of JoongAng Ilbo Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC) found the tablet of Park's longtime friend, Choi Soon-Sil.

This tablet, which lacked password protection, was disposed right outside Choi's residence and contained confidential information, including major presidential speeches and important national security and diplomatic documents. As a result, Park was accused of leaking official state documents to Choi Soon-Sil, who gave Park "her personal opinion" despite her not holding any public office. This led to a public apology from Park, in which she apologized for sharing the state documents and admitted that Choi looked at "some documents," although not specifying which documents or with what purpose. She tried to redeem herself by claiming she did so "out of pure heart," but the country was not convinced.

The people were unhappy with Choi not only because of the obvious breech of national security, but also because of discontent with Choi's family. Choi is the daughter of the late Choi Tae-Min, a religious cult leader and former mentor of Park, following Park's mother's assassination in 1974. The connection was initiated when he allegedly had a dream that Park's mother appeared in and asked him to help her. He established the Eternal Life Church as the "Future Buddha" and asked diplomats to refer to him as "Korea's Rasputin" in private. However, Choi was a "pseudo-pastor" who used Park in order to secure bribes in hopes to receive political gain.

Park's approval ratings prior had fit in the 30 to 50 percent range during her first three years in office. However, this scandal plummeted the approval rating to 21.1 percent, which ultimately slipped down to a mere 4 percent. The approval rates of the conservatives in the southeast, who had generally been most supportive of Park, fell in the single digit zone, and zero percent of Koreans under the age of 30 supported Park.

These mind-boggling statistics came to life on the streets. South Koreans decided they'd had enough with a government being prodded by the president's friend. Thus, people of all ages gathered together to hold candles and signs asking Korea "who's the real president?" This sparked a movement of protests for the following months. In response, Park made a second apology on Nov. 4, promising to take responsibility if she was found guilty. Her third apology came not too long after, where she, on the 20th of the same month, admitted to being willing to resign by asking Parliament how and when to give up her power. On Dec. 9, Parliament voted to impeach Park, and on March 9, the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld this decision.

Today, Korea finds their election, which was originally supposed to be held on Dec. 20, 2017, pushed up to May 2017. Moon Jae-In represents the Democratic Party and had a strong lead in the polls until recently; Moderate Ahn Cheol-Soo of the center-left People's Party has received support from a wide range of people including conservatives, centrists, and skeptics of Moon. Despite the fact that Moon was on the trajectory of becoming the next president, according to analysts, Ahn now regularly stands within a few points from Moon, and some polls even put Ahn ahead of Moon. In a poll, Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) showed, with a 95 percent confidence interval, 38 percent of Korean voters supported Moon and 35 percent supported Ahn. This is an increase of 25 percentage points for Ahn within the past two weeks. With less than a month before Koreans officially cast their votes, it is nearly impossible to state who will succeed Park. Whether the next president is Ahn or Moon, Korea will now enter a new chapter in history that demonstrates the people's power in a democratic society.

Now, in regards to Meloni's tweet, there are many reasons why the people of South Korea were discontent with their democracy and even more reasons leading up to the impeachment. Although we may not be able to perfectly emulate their strategy or even get the desired result, their resilience is truly worthy of attention and has ultimately overthrown their president. The people united to achieve their common goal — bringing a democracy that represented them, not the interests of a select few. They expressed their beliefs in such a strikingly peaceful manner. Each poster, testimony, popular song that was modified to criticize Park, and candle coalesced to form a force that proved the importance of the people in a democracy.