The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion South Korea shows the world how democracy is done

South Koreans celebrate in Seoul after the Constitutional Court’s verdict on March 10. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
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South Korea is in an uproar. Crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands have been surging through the streets of Seoul, the capital city. Some of the marchers are celebrating a ruling Friday by the Constitutional Court, which has upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Others who support the president have been angrily denouncing the court, leading to clashes with police that have resulted in the deaths of two protesters.

All of this turmoil is taking place against the backdrop of ominous gestures from North Korea, which fired off a salvo of four medium-range missiles in a test Monday. The distance traveled by the missiles would have enabled them to hit a U.S. military base in Japan — a point explicitly mentioned by the North Koreans in a communique accompanying the launch.

What are we supposed to make of all of this? Is the Korean Peninsula descending into chaos?

It’s important to keep two things separate here. First of all, the latest developments in South Korea follow revelations of corruption at the highest levels of political power. The allegations encompass not only the conservative President Park — who is accused of using her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, to funnel bribes to businessmen — but also the de facto head of Samsung, the vast business conglomerate that accounts for more than 10 percent of the country’s GDP. The company’s vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong, was maneuvering to expand his power at the top of the Samsung hierarchy. His trial on corruption charges has just gotten underway.

Eight court justices voted unanimously to remove the president from office. Park’s actions in office, said acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi, “betrayed the trust of the people and were of the kind that cannot be tolerated for the sake of protecting the Constitution.” Note: It was all about the people and the Constitution. The court’s act of institutional defiance is especially remarkable when you consider that democracy in South Korea is a mere 30 years old

This is the first time in Korean history that a democratically elected head of state has been removed from office by nonviolent, legal means. But that’s not all. The fact that Park’s fate became intertwined with that of Lee, a scion of the immensely powerful clan that controls Samsung, has given her case even greater resonance. “This is a major landmark in the young political history of the South Korean state,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “It’s significant because it really speaks to the deep problem of collusion between the government and big business.” The scandal has fueled the outpouring of public anger by reminding the public “that the people in the country who have money and power feel they’re above the law,” says Lee. “In this sense, this is a big blow against the old political culture. It’s a victory for the rule of law.”

Now the country faces fresh elections within the next 60 days. The current front-runner is the opposition leader Moon Jae-in, head of the Democratic Party. Among other policy proposals, he favors a return to the so-called sunshine policy, a program of rapprochement with North Korea that was favored by left-wing governments in the 1990s and early 2000s. Park’s conservative administration, routinely vilified by North Korea, preferred sanctions to negotiations.

At the moment, North Korea doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in compromise. The rhetoric coming from the regime of Kim Jong Un has been especially harsh lately, and this week’s missile launch (not to mention the bizarre assassination of Kim Jong Nam, the current ruler’s half-brother) doesn’t exactly sound like an overture to reconciliation. Yet Sung-Yoon Lee, the Tufts scholar, notes that North Korea has little incentive to moderate its appalling behavior — since that’s the only way it can get regional powers to treat it like a player. (Plus, a revival of the sunshine policy would give the North a new lease on life by allowing it to squeeze financial and material benefits from the Southerners.)

For the time being, though, not even North Korea’s military prowess or South Korea’s current political instability can conceal the fundamental divide between the two. North Korea remains one of the world’s few examples of a fully totalitarian state, its leaders presiding over an impoverished and brutalized population. South Korea, which boasts one of the world’s most dynamic economies, continues to evolve and broaden its democratic institutions. Observers sometimes invoke the “rivalry” between the two states, but it isn’t really much of a competition, and it hasn’t been for years. That’s worth contemplating at a time when many around the world are bemoaning the “authoritarian resurgence” and the ills of democracy.

To be sure, South Korea still has many problems. But its people, buoyed up by an extraordinary wave of civic activism, are showing that they aren’t prepared to accept the established way of doing things. They have mounted a remarkable campaign for change, and today that campaign has borne fruit of the most dramatic sort. Their cousins to the north can only dream of similar acts of defiance — which is why their country remains frozen in time, beholden to a leader whose only plan for the future is tied to the machinery of violence.