SEOUL — Opposition lawmakers in South Korea are pressing ahead with their plan to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Friday, but the embattled leader, after saying she would resign if the parliament demanded it, is digging in.
Park is at the center of a corruption and influence-peddling scandal that is astounding even by South Korean standards. She is under intense political and public pressure to step down, with her approval rating at 4 percent and hundreds of thousands of South Koreans taking to the streets each weekend to demand her resignation, with another rally planned for Saturday.
Opposition lawmakers plan to bring a motion Friday, the last day the National Assembly meets this year, and are confident they will win enough support from representatives in Park’s ruling Saenuri party to cross the two-thirds majority needed to impeach the president. If the motion succeeds, it will go to the Constitutional Court for approval, which could take six months, but Park will be suspended immediately and the prime minister will take over.
Park met with leaders of the Saenuri party Tuesday and signaled that she would not step down until the court had ruled, meaning this political paralysis could drag on for months.
“President Park said that even if an impeachment motion is passed as planned, she is determined to calmly and solemnly move forward for the nation and people as she watches the adjudication process of the Constitutional Court,” Chung Jin-suk, Saenuri’s floor leader in the National Assembly, told local reporters after the meeting.
With the political crisis coming to a head, some South Koreans are wondering if the country is arriving at a turning point similar to the one it experienced almost 30 years ago. After mass protests across the nation in 1987, the military-led government agreed to democratic overhauls that included holding direct presidential elections.
Maybe this moment is not as momentous as the change from military dictatorship to democracy, but it feels like an opportunity to make the much-needed next leap, analysts say.
“During the last three decades, we’ve made remarkable progress in terms of economic development and human rights,” said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at Seoul National University. “But many people think we’re now at a crossroads. We haven’t found the leadership to lead the country to a more promising future.”
South Korea made an astonishing transformation from a poor, agrarian nation in the 1960s to the rich, high-tech powerhouse it is today. This metamorphosis was driven by the current president’s father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, whose government support for conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai not only powered industrialization but also forged the bond between politics and business that endures today.
But there is now a sense of stagnation. The big companies are facing challenges — exemplified by the way Samsung Electronics had to cancel its Galaxy Note 7 smartphone because it kept catching fire. Hanjin, one of the world’s biggest shipping lines, collapsed in August amid falling demand in a slowing global economy and has filed for bankruptcy.
Young Koreans complain about a two-tier society where those born with a “golden spoon” in their mouths get into the best universities and secure the plum jobs, while those born with a “dirt spoon” work long hours in low-paying jobs without benefits.
“Many people want a breakthrough to help overcome such trying questions,” Kang said.
This sense of unfairness is one of the key factors that have been sending people here out onto the streets to call for Park’s resignation.
Every president since democratization has become embroiled in some kind of bribery debacle. But this time is different. Those scandals were centered on relatives — usually brothers and sons — of the presidents. This one is focused directly on the president herself.
After campaigning on the theme that she was incorruptible — she has no children and is estranged from her siblings — it has emerged in recent months that Park had been taking advice from a secret confidante on everything from North Korea policy to her wardrobe.
The confidante, Choi Soon-sil, a lifelong friend and daughter of a shadowy cult leader, used that relationship to enrich herself to the tune of at least $70 million and get advantages for her family, prosecutors say. One of the country’s leading universities apparently bent its admission rules to allow Choi’s daughter in.
To explain the anger to an American audience, Kim Ou-joon, the host of a hugely popular political podcast, explains it this way: “Imagine how angry and betrayed [Donald] Trump’s supporters would be if they found out that he was gay, Muslim and broke at the same time. How would his supporters react if everything they believed in him turned out to be false?”
This situation could have a silver lining, said Lee Chung-min, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University who served as Park’s ambassador for international security affairs. “There is a growing clamor for real political reform, real generational change and cleaner politics,” he said.
Changing the constitution to allow presidents to serve two four-year terms would be a good start.
Since democratization, presidents have been limited to a single five-year term, a provision meant to guard against a return to authoritarian rule. But it has also had the effect of turning presidents into lame ducks after two years.
There is universal support for making this change but disagreement on how to do it. Some ruling party lawmakers are now pushing the idea of constitutional restructuring as a solution to the current crisis, allowing Park, who was elected in 2013, to bow out early as it makes the change to a four-year term. But the opposition parties want Park out before they begin negotiations on constitutional change.
Some analysts say the whole system needs retooling to make the president less powerful and to overhaul the political party structure, which sees parties coming and going every election.
The current crisis is the result of conflicting views held by the citizens living in the 21st century and a political class stuck in a 20th-century style of ruling, said Kim, the podcaster, whose weekly program is called “Popeyes,” a play on the pejorative name for Park: “the chicken.” The podcast is usually downloaded 10 million times a week, but it has spiked to 14 million recently.
The political and business class still believes in the system built by Park’s father, where corruption was tolerated for the sake of economic growth, but the people want something different, he said.
“The collapse of the ruling class’s paradigm will bring about a positive change in South Korea,” Kim said. “South Koreans now have the chance to start afresh by truly living in the 21st century. A change of administration at the next election will be a start. The whole process might take a bit longer than people expect, but I believe it can happen because the fundamental and irreversible awakening of the public has already begun.”
There may be an additional factor driving the public.
“South Koreans identify themselves with national success, so it’s not hard to imagine their shame from this case,” said Oh Chan-ho, a researcher at Sogang University’s Institute of Social Sciences and author of popular political books about Korean youth. “Shame has been added to festering corruption, labor problems and economic issues, meaning that more people have come out on to the streets.”
There is reason to be optimistic, said Lee of Yonsei.
“I think we’re the only country in the world that has gone through so much change in such a short period of time and succeeded,” he said, citing the progress made despite decades of authoritarian and military dictatorship. “We have a vibrant democracy, the economy is spluttering but is okay. We can adapt and deal with any kind of adversarial situation.
“Creating something new out of chaos is something that Korean people are good at.”
Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.