S. Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington and a frequent commentator on South Korean politics and economy.
With each new revelation about the ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the murmurs of impeachment are growing louder. Just six months into Trump administration, U.S. voters are evenly split – 42 percent to 42 percent – on whether the president should be impeached, according to the latest poll by USA Today/iMediaEthics. President Trump’s removal from office is unlikely in the near term, because Republicans — who continue to support Trump, if grudgingly — control both houses of Congress.
But if those who are determined to topple Trump get their chance, they would be well-advised to take some lessons from South Korea, which has given the world a master class in how to remove a president while upholding the democratic order.
The bizarre story of Park Geun-hye’s corruption graced the world’s headlines in October 2016, when it was revealed that Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil, daughter of a shaman who claimed to communicate with Park’s dead mother, had been accused of collecting more than $700 million in bribes from Korea’s largest corporations. As the jaw-dropping details of the bribery scandal were revealed — in addition to allegedly collecting bribes, Choi was said to have edited presidential speeches and embezzled from the budget for the upcoming Winter Olympics — the Korean public boiled over into indignant outrage. Many called for the president’s immediate impeachment.
Yet rather than succumbing to the torrent of public emotion, South Korea’s liberals carefully avoided any appearance of hysteria or radicalism. In the months between the discovery of Park’s corruption and her removal, liberals — both those within the formal institutions and those outside them — acted vigorously but with restraint. They were determined to show the wider Korean public, which only intermittently pays attention to politics, that they were not an invading mob bent on a palace coup, but rather that they could be entrusted to restore order from the chaos that Park had wrought.
The leaders of the Democratic Party, Korea’s main liberal party, moved deliberately. Instead of jumping straight to impeachment, the Democratic Party made a point of giving Park options for a dignified exit. At one point they suggested that Park let the opposition nominate the prime minister, who would then serve as the de facto head of state. But as Park rejected one offer of compromise after another, she effectively hung herself with the lifelines given to her, gradually showing voters that impeachment was the only remaining option.
Liberal activists working outside of the formal political structure took a similar tack. For 17 consecutive weeks during Korea’s freezing winter, the liberal activists hosted the famed “candlelight protests.” Each week for four months, huge crowds — averaging more than a million — gathered in Seoul’s City Hall Square. Compare that with the Women’s March on Washington in January, which drew 450,000 people. (Protests the day before in Washington were marred by anarchists who smashed store windows.)
Although the candlelight protests were more than double the size of the Women’s March and went on for more than four months, they were scrupulously nonviolent — and this was no accident. The protest organizers — many of them labor union leaders with deep experience in organizing massive demonstrations — actively enforced order by clamping down on the radical fringe.
Activists came up with creative ways for people to vent their emotions without indulging in violence. To name but one example, artist Lee Gang-heon prepared and distributed 200,000 flower stickers. When the police buses blocked the path of the protesters, the protesters covered the buses with stickers until they resembled mounds of beautiful flowers. Such restraint turned the candlelight protests into family-friendly events, allowing the crowd to become even larger without falling into disorder. In doing so, the liberals made themselves appear mainstream, leaving the conservatives as the marginalized fringe.
South Korea’s experience offers an important lesson. Impeachment is a radical step, which comes only after a long period of fractious politics. Many voters, alienated by the fuss, will simply tune out. To win them over, those pushing for the president’s removal must show the larger public that they can be trusted to bring stability and common sense back to the government. This is precisely what South Korea’s liberals did.
By acting with maturity, Korean liberals gained more than impeachment and removal of a conservative president. They created an environment in which the succeeding liberal administration could govern effectively. In the presidential election following the removal, Moon Jae-in won the largest margin of victory in Korean democratic history. The strong mandate from the electoral victory carried over, as Moon enjoyed approval ratings in the mid-80s for months, the highest support ever for a Korean president.
With the wind in his sails, Moon has been able to implement his liberal agenda, raising the minimum wage by more than 16 percent and gearing up to increase taxes on the wealthy while cutting taxes for small businesses. Although it has been less than three months since Moon Jae-in took office, the caustic partisanship that paralyzed the Park Geun-hye administration seems like a distant memory. American anti-Trump activists would be well-advised to take note.