The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korea’s president was just impeached. This is what it means and what comes next.

A lawmaker prays after voting on the impeachment bill of South Korean President Park Geun-hye at the National Assembly in Seoul on Dec. 9. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

The turmoil that has engulfed South Korea for weeks has now crossed a critical threshold. The National Assembly voted on Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye. She’s accused of more than a dozen constitutional and legal offenses, including helping her shadowy confidante extort money from corporations, peddle influence and meddle in state affairs. She joins a long line of Korean presidents who have been embroiled in scandals.

But the significance of the impeachment vote goes far beyond this particular scandal. This scandal brought to light particularly egregious examples of the coziness of government-business ties, elite privilege, the untrammeled powers of the presidency, and deep societal inequities. These factors together helped drive Park’s approval ratings down to 4 percent and help explain the increasingly large candlelight demonstrations calling for Park Geun-hye to resign.

The millions of people protesting Park’s refusal to resign prompted the opposition parties to impeach her. Together, the opposition parties hold a majority of seats in the National Assembly, but fewer than the two thirds required to pass the impeachment motion. The 234 votes for impeachment on Friday indicate that about half of the legislators from Park’s own conservative party, including some of her own faction, joined the opposition parties in voting for impeachment.

The impeachment motion is just the beginning. As the process grinds forward, candlelight demonstrations are likely to continue. The day after the impeachment vote, one demonstration drew nearly a million people. But tackling the endemic corruption and social inequities that this scandal represents will take much longer.

What comes next

The motion’s passage suspended Park’s powers, but not her title or salary. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn took over as acting president. Hwang is also deeply unpopular, as a Park appointee and loyalist. He is unlikely to change policy.

The Korean Constitutional Court now has six months to weigh the evidence for Park’s impeachment. This may not be a quick or simple process. The court may wait for the independent counsel to finish investigating accusations leveled at Park in the impeachment motion. In addition, the court is reputedly conservative-leaning and at least six of the nine justices (and the terms of two are scheduled to end early next year) must vote to uphold the impeachment motion. If they clear this bar, then a presidential election will take place within 60 days.

What the scandal means

This scandal epitomizes ordinary citizens’ anger at perceived inequities in Korean society. Revelations that the daughter of Park’s confidante had received preferential treatment from one of Korea’s top universities fueled public outrage and forced that university’s leader to resign and the daughter to be expelled.

The injustice particularly incensed young people, who describe their country as “Hell Joseon.” But many other citizens feel similarly. A conservative newspaper recently reported that eight in 10 middle-class Koreans feel poor. This scandal only reinforces such feelings.

Park’s refusal to submit to prosecutors’ questioning or answer reporters’ questions suggested that she felt somehow above the law. And revelations this week that Park had been getting her hair done while the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014, killing more than 300 people (mostly high school students), drove home feelings that she was dangerously out of touch.

The ferry’s sinking and several other accidents resulting from lax regulations had already damaged public trust in government. But the scandal surrounding Park’s confidante brought speculations about Park’s seven-hour absence on the day the ferry sank back to the surface. Those missing hours were even included in the impeachment motion and served as a rallying cry for organizers of the demonstrations.

This corruption scandal is especially ironic because it follows on the heels of Korea’s most extensive anti-graft legislation, which took effect in September. The scandal is a reminder of how corruption bound together the business and political elites. And after the heads of Korea’s largest conglomerates were called before the National Assembly this past week to publicly answer questions about contributions they made to the confidante’s foundation, their denials of wrongdoing further inflamed public outrage.

Citizens increasingly question their country’s policy of pursuing economic growth at all costs. This was a policy that Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, first articulated in the 1960s and that made Korea the advanced industrialized democracy it is today. While corruption is nothing new in Korean politics, calls for rooting out elite privilege and injustice have drawn students, entire families with young children, and the elderly to join the “candlelight revolution.”

Will anything change?

After the impeachment motion, the candlelight demonstrations may diminish in size but they’re unlikely to disappear. The 1,600 civic groups that organized the demonstrations want Park’s resignation. Until she’s actually gone, demonstrations will continue.

Many of these groups may also pressure the Constitutional Court while it considers the impeachment motion. Public support in 2004 for Roh Moo-hyun, the only other Korean president to have been impeached, may have contributed to the court’s decision to overturn that impeachment motion from the National Assembly. This time around, seventy percent of respondents favor Park’s resignation, according to a poll taken after the impeachment vote last week.

The current wave of demonstrations also signals Koreans’ desire for a better society. Protests have been a staple of Korean political life, leading some to call Korea a “Republic of Demonstrations.” Mass protests are credited with bringing about democracy in 1987. The impeachment vote only reinforced the legitimacy of demonstrations as a form of political participation.

At the same time, the current turmoil will do little to stabilize Korea’s political parties. Parties have tended to be short-lived vehicles for their leaders’ advancement. After this scandal, the conservative Saenuri Party, which Park founded before her presidential candidacy in 2012, is ripe for reconstitution. Only a year ago, leading progressive politicians formed their own parties in preparation for the presidential election originally scheduled for December 2017.

For now, partisan scrambling in preparation for a foreshortened presidential election schedule is likely to take precedence over large-scale constitutional reforms. But these reforms — for example, two four-year terms for the president and increased checks on the president’s powers — have gained urgency in the current crisis. Even Park, like many prior presidents, had proposed reforms just before the scandal broke, and the leaders of all parties in the National Assembly have also formed a special committee for constitutional reform.

This scandal and public outrage will make changing the constitution and addressing social inequities top priorities for Korea’s next president. Otherwise, count on more candles in the streets.

 Celeste L. Arrington is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.