South Korean politicians are pressing ahead with moves to impeach President Park Geun-hye, trying to force her out of office if she won’t resign over her involvement in a corruption and influence-peddling scandal.
Park, South Korea’s first female president and daughter of former military coup leader Park Chung-hee, is now fighting for her political life.
Prosecutors have accused her of being an accomplice to crimes leveled against Choi Soon-sil, her close friend of 40 years, and two presidential aides. Choi has been indicted on charges including extortion, fraud and abuse of power, as has one former presidential secretary. The other is accused of divulging classified information.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Seoul every weekend for the past month — and another huge protest is scheduled for Saturday — to call on Park to stand down. A Realmeter poll published Thursday found that 86 percent of respondents disapproved of Park's performance, with 80 percent saying that she should be impeached.
But she has remained defiant, refusing to be questioned by prosecutors and instead approving a special counsel to investigate. Through her spokesman, she has denied all the charges, which her attorney has dismissed as “imagined.”
That now makes impeachment the best option for forcing her out — even though it could be a long and drawn out process. Critics say Park is trying to run out the clock.
“We will immediately review the timing and procedure of impeachment and will establish an organization to proceed and review the process,” Choo Mi-ae, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, said Monday, a day after the prosecutors’ office named Park as a suspect.
What are the grounds for impeaching a president in South Korea?
This is what Article 65 of the Constitution says:
“In case the President … [has] have violated the Constitution or other Acts in the performance of the official duties, the National Assembly may pass motions for their impeachment.”
To start the process, one-third of the members of the National Assembly must propose an impeachment motion, with the agreement of a simple majority of lawmakers. The motion must then be approved by at least two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly.
“Any person against whom a motion for impeachment has been passed shall be suspended from exercising his power until the impeachment has been adjudicated,” the Constitution states.
Impeachment “shall not exempt the person impeached from civil or criminal liability,” it continues. That means that the immunity from prosecution that the president enjoys in office ends the day he or she leaves.
Why have politicians been reluctant to start this process?
Because it’s going to take a long time, and Park will leave office anyway in February 2018, after elections that are set to be held in December 2017. And it’s far from guaranteed that this will actually succeed.
So politicians had been hoping that the public pressure — as evidenced in the weekly protests and poll numbers that are as low as 5 percent — would force Park to resign.
But her continued defiance, coupled with Sunday’s indictments, have spurred critical politicians to action.
How are the numbers shaping up?
The Democratic Party, which is preparing to start impeachment proceedings, has 121 seats in the 300-member assembly, while the People's Party, which supports impeachment, has 38.
With the third opposition group, the Justice Party, they get to 165, easily putting them over the simple majority needed to bring the motion. Adding in the six independents, they get to 171.
But the question is whether they can win enough support from Park’s ruling Saenuri Party to reach 200 and cross the two-thirds threshold needed to pass the motion.
Some prominent Saenuri members have publicly turned against Park.
Kim Moo-sung, who used to be party chairman and was Park’s chief campaign manager when she ran for the presidency in 2012, said this week that he would sponsor a motion to impeach her.
“A president who violated the Constitution must be impeached,” he told reporters. “In order to reinvent the conservatives and to take the responsibility before the people, I will lead a discussion inside the Saenuri Party to sponsor a motion to impeach her.”
But how many Saenuri lawmakers will go with him? At least 29 must unite with the opposition parties to vote against Park and pass the motion.
Given how many ruling party representatives have publicly criticized Park, analysts say it is feasible that they could overcome the 200 mark.
The assembly could vote on the impeachment motion as early as Dec. 2, but certainly no later than Dec. 9, Woo Sang-ho, the main opposition Democratic Party’s whip, told reporters this week.
What happens if the assembly does pass the motion to impeach?
The role of president is immediately suspended once the impeachment bill passes and the next in line by constitution, the prime minister, takes over the role while the motion goes to the Constitutional Court for approval, a process that could take up to six months.
But once it gets to the Constitutional Court, it needs at least six of the nine judges to rule in its favor. Six of the nine current judges were appointed by conservative presidents or put forward by Park’s conservative party, raising some doubt about whether the court would uphold the impeachment motion.
It will become more complicated when two of the judges’ terms expire early next year. Park Han-chul, the chief justice, is set to leave on Jan. 31, while Lee Jung-mi’s term is up on March 14.
It is unlikely that the prime minister would spark more political controversy by trying to name two new judges during this interregnum, so the court would be left with only seven judges — the minimum number required to begin reviewing the bill. If even one judge abstains from the process, the court would not have the authority to act.
Is there any precedent for this?
The National Assembly voted in 2004 to impeach the liberal president Roh Moo-hyun for minor breaches of election law.
Roh, who was known for speaking freely, had spoken in support of his ruling party during parliamentary elections, thereby violating rules that the president must remain politically neutral.
But the motion was overturned by the Constitutional Court two months after it passed in the National Assembly, ruling that although Roh did break the law, his offenses were not serious enough to warrant him being removed from office.
The move backfired on the conservative opposition, with the widespread public opinion that it was abusing its power to try to oust the president.
However, legal experts say that Park’s case was different from Roh’s because the allegations leveled at her by prosecutors were much more serious than those Roh faced.
Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific studies at the University of California at San Diego, noted that Park is mentioned on virtually every page of the prosecutor’s statement released Sunday — 29 of 33 pages.
“It is clear that on all accounts the president was an enabler if not an outright accomplice and the prosecutor says as much,” Haggard wrote on the blog North Korea: Witness to Transformation. “He also has stated in interviews that the only charges discussed in his press statement were those that the office believed were certain to be successfully prosecuted.”
The press supports impeachment
There is widespread support in the South Korean press, even at the conservative, for the impeachment process to begin.
“The moral, political, and legal reasons to impeach her are all established,” the JoongAng Ilbo, one of the big three newspapers, wrote in an editorial this week. It urged rival parties to put aside their political differences and “immediately embark on the legal and systematic procedure to push the president out of the office in an orderly fashion.”
“Impeachment is the only legal option to bring order in the political chaos while the president remains recalcitrant to take responsibility,” the JoongAng said.
The conservative Chosun Ilbo, which had generally been supportive of Park until this scandal broke, this week said that if the president must be impeached, the process should be swift.
The impeachment of Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff took almost a year, with the Brazilian economy “sinking further into a slump” all the while, the paper said in an editorial.
“The U.S. has elected a president with protectionist leanings and the nuclear threat from North Korea is growing. Korea cannot afford to take the same route as Brazil,” the paper wrote. “If impeachment is the only way out of this mess, it must proceed swiftly and according to the law.”
Yoonjung Seo in Seoul contributed to this report.