The South Korean National Assembly impeached President Park Geun-hye in December with a 234-56 vote, shattering the mandated 200-vote threshold. It was at last a significant development for a South Korean government beleaguered by an unprecedented political crisis. In late October, scandals surrounding Park and her unofficial, unvetted confidante, Choi Soon-sil, broke out when drafts of Park’s speeches, and over 200 other confidential files, were found on Choi’s abandoned computer. Since then, several accusations and disclosures have emerged, all contributing to the blooming “Choi Soon-sil gate” scandal.
Choi now stands accused of blackmailing “chaebol” companies – Korean family-owned conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai – to donate KRW 77.4 billion ($65.7 million) to her foundations (Mir and K-Sports). She is also charged with meddling in state affairs, especially in the country’s sports sector. President Park has since been accused of colluding with Choi, peddling her presidential influence for donations.
Since then, weekly protests at the Gwanghwamun Square brought together an estimated million Koreans calling for the resignation of President Park. President Park has had lapses in judgment that must be answered for; there is a strong consensus on this in the National Assembly. The president’s approval rating dipped into single digits, and public protests have become routine. Yet, the question every politician is too afraid to ask is: “What is the game plan without Park?”
The answer right now is Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who assumed the role of acting president once Park was impeached. Yet, Prime Minister Hwang has not appeased many. He is seen as an insider in Park’s administration, a part of the problem rather than the solution. Further adding to his precarious position, he was actually sacked by Park in November when the scandal began to break and only remained in office because the National Assembly blocked confirmation hearings for his replacement. Regardless, Prime Minister Hwang is the acting president until the Constitutional Court rules on Park’s permanent removal from the Blue House, which may take up to 180 days. If the court ousts Park, he will continue his role for another 60 days until a new president is elected.
In theory, the presidential succession plan laid out in Article 68 Section 2 of the Constitution should result in a relatively quick transition of power to a new president; it mandates that within two months a new president must be elected, a pretty short window. The prime minster cannot serve as replacement because he is not an elected office and would therefore offend the democratic principle of having a popularly elected president. At a glance, the contingency plan seems reasonable, but in reality, it is far from viable.
The trouble began with the political dynamics of the current National Assembly, composed of 300 representatives. At the time of the scandals breaking and impeachment, the ruling Saenuri Party held 128 seats (99 seats now) and opposition parties 165 seats; 121 of which are Democratic (Minjoo) Party, 38 People’s Party, 6 Justice Party and seven independents. This composition is reflective of the nation’s political dynamics, with no single party having majority. On December 27th, 29 Saenuri representatives quit the party and founded its own negotiating body; the party is expected to launch in January.
Carl Schmitt argued that politics comes down to a friend-enemy distinction. In other words, politics at its core is coalition building. That is exactly what Korean politicians, specifically those in the National Assembly, have failed to achieve post Choi-gate. The splintering of a multi-party National Assembly has made coalition building a messy process, and further hampered by the small time frame they are afforded. Park’s recent moves have served as an irritant, making the lack of political capacity and will in the National Assembly even more apparent.
On November 29th, Park delivered her third speech, stating she would follow the National Assembly’s consensus on whether they would impeach her, including shortening of her remaining term, but that she would not resign. This forced the National Assembly to go through the full process, including a timely constitutional court ruling. The speech was met with much hostility from the opposition bloc, condemning the speech as a savvy political move to delay or even avoid impeachment by causing confusion in the ranks of the Saenuri Party, whose votes were needed to reach the 200 vote threshold. Though the speech might have delayed the vote, it was an eventuality that Park acknowledged. She shifted the onus onto the National Assembly by saying she would follow their lead, putting the ball in their court.
There is a Korean saying, “Even a mouse bites when it’s backed into a corner.” As soon as the public opinion turned against Park, she had nothing to lose. There was no way she could stay in office, but she would stay as long as she could. Between resignation and impeachment, the latter was her better option.
The actual removal of Park following the impeachment vote requires six of nine justices of the Constitutional Court to affirm the removal. The Constitutional Court is stacked with conservative judges who may rule against Park’s removal. If the legal proceedings last into March, when two judges are set to retire, the removal may require six of the seven remaining judges’ consent, almost a unanimous decision. From Park’s precarious political position, impeachment is a gamble worth taking, especially compared to immediate resignation. Furthermore, if she can weather the impeachment, there is no alternative plan for getting her out of the Blue House.
Opposition bloc politicians should have realized impeachment was a win for Park, whose quick resignation, rather than impeachment, would have put the opposition bloc in the driver’s seat for the 60-day election. President Park’s Saenuri Party most likely would have failed to rally from this political disaster. By impeaching Park and going through the long and more arduous process, the opposition bloc has opened the door for Saenuri to get back in the game for the 60-day election, which may not even happen if the Court sides with Park.
Ultimately, the real culprit in this fiasco is Korea’s constitution, specifically the 60-day election clause. It is not enough time to run a campaign, the most political and often divisive moments in the life of political parties. Candidates need to be vetted, and the public needs time to make up its mind. What if a future president is assassinated or incapacitated amid a national security crisis? These are extreme scenarios, but the constitution must prepare the nation for exactly those situations. In any nation, government stability and continuity must reign supreme in times of crises. In the US, the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 clearly states the presidential order of succession; this is what Korea lacks.
Looking forward to a new process of succession, one that avoids a reelection and consensus on high level appointments, would be to have Koreans actually elect officials at the top of the presidential succession ladder, The Korean people should be afforded the privilege of directly voting for a vice-president or a prime minister.
If Korean politicians were less concerned about who would and how to seize the Blue House in a 60-day election, they would have pursued Park’s resignation more vigorously. Partisan and individual interests dominated once everyone realized the precariousness of their position in a short election campaign for a potentially short-lived presidency (there’s only one year left before the next scheduled election). In a time of crisis and succession of leadership, there should be little room allowed for political calculation and complicated coalition building.
The current constitution fails to strike a balance between the democratic principle of having an elected leader, and preserving national integrity and security. In this case, it hampered the will and wishes of the people who wanted Park out immediately. The prospect of the 60-day election came with the specter of typical partisanship and indecision. Rather than focusing on getting Park out as quickly as possible, politicians focused on improving their own political stocks. They were too busy counting their chickens before they hatched. In the end, they were forced into a lengthy, unpredictable impeachment process – a win for Park and a loss for everyone else. Once the scandal and leadership crisis pass, perhaps not until the planned presidential election next year, lawmakers must revise the Constitution so that the next crisis is solved more swiftly and deliberately.
Politicians from both aisles opposed Park without any solid contingency plans. Keeping the public’s expectations high while failing to meet those expectations because of poor political calculus intent on maximizing private gain is a disgrace, but one that seems typical and repeatable. The Constitution should reflect this ugliest of truths and restructure so as to reduce the influence of party politics on something as important as who will take over when a president is no longer able to lead.