The Korean verdict

March 16, 2017


Sardar Aminullah Khan

On 10th March, 2017, South Korea’s Constitutional Court issued the judgment unanimously confirming the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye by the legislature. It was a historic decision with wide ranging implications for the country and the region. Protests in favor and against the President were conspicuous but without any serious effect on minds of the judges.

This is first time that an elected President has been removed both by assembly and the court. The last time a South Korean leader was removed from office under popular pressure was in 1960, when the police fired on crowds followed by demand for President Syngman Rhee to step down. (Mr. Rhee, a dictator, fled into exile in Hawaii and died there.) In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun was also impeached by the National Assembly on much trumpeted charges of interfering the elections as well as corruption among his associates. The Constitutional Court somehow overturned parliament’s decision at that time and the President Roh was reinstated causing  victory for his party in the next National Assembly elections same year.

This time Park’s impeachment had altogether different impact. Korea has been divided into fragmented into pro and anti-President groups furiously participating in their respective demonstrations. So much so that on basis of two groups of younger generation, pro-impeachment progressives and older anti-impeachment conservatives, outgoing President Park’s ruling Saenuri Party has been split into more reformative Bareun Party and the Liberty Korea Party. Park’s legal advisors team publicly condemned the ruling as ‘biased’, followed by street parade for repealing the impeachment. Progressive press termed the ruling as the ‘victory of the “citizens’ revolution” and confirmation of the rule of law and democratic values’.

Another impact has been the reported improvement in the prospects of some of the potential candidates. Their true leadership style has hardly been visible and agenda or reforms are yet to be notifies. The apparent divide in the nation may or may not have serious affect on elections which are to be held within 60 days. Credentials of many candidates will be tested in terms of drawing an ideological lines or otherwise.

Korea is one of the countries where politico-economic reforms are overdue. The controversial constitutional reforms of 1987, the President’s five year term considered lengthy while unbridled powers are treated problematic by certain circles demanding political reforms spearheaded by the reduction in said term and action against corruption. Economy is slow since a decade and world renowned Korean economic model and the system of large scale enterprises (chaebols) considered as economic oligarchs, too need revision. There are more than 53 cases of corruption and large Korean corporations have considerable powers and influence on politics especially in terms of appointments and their authority for deep impact in economic realms and graft in the society.

Whatever may be the views of all and sundry about impeachment of the President, there has occurred a rebelling against a particular political order that insolated South Korean system and kept it together for decades. It seems to be at risk now in view of domestic and other pressures including economic and political pressure for revision of constitution, through reforms including corruption and rent seeking in certain areas.

Besides, certain important things have come to the lime light. That include demonstration of humble respect for the ruling by court and parliament, removal of Ms. Park without any violence, rather after large, peaceful protests in recent months demanding her resignation, strengthening of two important pillars of the system i.e. the parliament and the judiciary, politics of performance, removal of immunity to the President granted by the constitution, possible shift of power to opposition, revival of policy of engagement with the neighbors through by devising joint strategy on North Korea, to defuse tension with China and new economic model for ensuring higher rate of economic growth. Some of these, if followed, may pose diplomatic challenges; more so in relation to USA viz-a-viz China.

It is for the people of Korea to decide as to who will be best to undertake much desired reforms. Status-quo minded groups may not be interested and can seriously jeopardize the reform initiatives. Investigations against Chief Executive of Samsung Electronics and other MNCs are however important signs of action against graft blown up by people in most demonstrations also. But Koreans people are versatile and well educated, the economy is very agile and high-tech and country is most likely to come out of this crisis with flying colours through fair expected reforms and .

All the same, the judgment is historic and will certainly influence the Korean system and politics for a long time. It may even set the trends for the others in view of populist movement that has engulfed many countries, particularly those countries that have many familiarities on the aforementioned aspects of Korean crisis and its political economy.