President Park Geun-hye is embroiled in a corruption scandal that is likely to result in her resignation or impeachment. She has fifteen months to serve as South Korea’s president but opposition leaders and the public are calling for her impeachment. Weekly mass demonstrations of more than a million protesters have taken place in Seoul and across Korea as public outrage mounts about endemic corruption charges. Protestors are demanding the president’s immediate resignation.
Although President Park may not have enriched herself personally, prosecutors want to talk to her about collusion with Choi Soon-sil and nepotism. Ms Choi is accused of fraud, abuse of power and coercion which is undermining democracy in South Korea. Demonstrators are outraged about the scale of the corruption that occurred under the president’s nose and on her watch by Ms Choi Soon-sil and the president’s closest aides. President Park’s involvement is still unclear. She has admitted allowing Ms Choi too much influence but denies extorting money from big corporations.
The president said in her third apology to the nation that she would resign: “Once lawmakers come up with measures to transfer power in a way that minimises any power vacuum and chaos in governance, I will step down.” She has suggested next April, according to Yonhap TV, which will be ten months before the end of her term.
Opposition politicians accused President Park of trying to side-step an impeachment process by offering to stand down early. They are poised to present a bill to impeach the president with a vote expected on Friday. They will need a two-thirds majority vote in the National Assembly which must include support from 28 of the president’s Saenuri Party colleagues to proceed. The conservative Saenuri group has a majority of just one in the National Assembly.
If parliament votes to impeach President Park, it would take six months to get approval from the constitutional court which is not automatic and two months to elect a new president. In the meantime the prime minister would govern.
Clearly, opposition leaders and the public want to make an example of President Park to deter future fraud and nepotism. For them, it is not sufficient that the president agrees to step down. They want her to be disciplined publicly to send a message to other Korean politicians and the wider world that the Republic of Korea does not condone corruption. They want to show that no one is above the law or immune from prosecution, no matter what position she holds. They say they will press for impeachment even if the president resigns but immediate resignation is the swiftest, cheapest and simplest solution.
Impeachment will certainly humiliate President Park but there is a real risk it will also paralyse the government and it is not a cost-effective or swift solution. A transfer of power in April is the alternative but many feel President Park does not deserve to dictate the terms or timing of her departure.
Opportunity for reform
Whatever happens to the president, this scandal has given South Korea’s politicians a unique opportunity to reform the power-sharing executive between the president and prime minister and to introduce full proportional representation. Electoral reform will provide checks and balances, greater accountability and will limit the power of the president in future. It is an opportunity not only to root out corruption and discipline individuals who are at fault but also to strengthen democracy even further in this highly developed republic.
Constitutional and electoral reform will make South Korea a beacon of hope and a shining example of democracy both throughout Asia and beyond.