The political crisis in South Korea came to a head on Friday, as the National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye. A two-thirds majority vote was needed.
In the final tally, 234 out of 300 lawmakers voted for impeachment – which, as the New York Times points out, means that almost half of the 128 lawmakers in Park’s own Saenuri party voted in favor.
A previous Times report extensively detailed the charges against Park, which boil down to abusing government power and violating the national Constitution to benefit her old friend Choi Soon-sil, who wielded enormous influence despite having no official position at all.
Although Park previously made a great show of putting her fate in the hands of the National Assembly, she promptly declared she would fight impeachment in court, instead of resigning. She also apologized for a “lack of discretion” and “carelessness” without admitting legal wrongdoing.
The Constitutional Court must ratify her impeachment within 180 days to make it permanent. During that period, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will serve as acting president. A new presidential election would be held within 60 days of her permanent removal from office, or resignation.
Hwang Kyo-ahn is described by the South China Morning Post as a “stiff and uncompromising defender” of President Park, and one of the “staunchest loyalists” in the Park cabinet. He became Prime Minister after his predecessor Lee Wan Koo resigned due to corruption allegations. Park actually tried to replace him earlier this year; he only kept his position as Prime Minister because opposition lawmakers refused to confirm his replacement.
This might displease the crowds who were calling for Park’s removal from office (the New York Times writes of literal dancing in the streets when her impeachment was announced, despite frigid cold temperatures in Seoul) but it could provide some reassuring continuity to foreign governments dealing with South Korea, including the United States.
The U.S. State Department said as much, in its reaction to Park’s impeachment: “We expect policy consistency and continuity across a range of fronts, including DPRK, other regional issues, and international economics and trade.” (“DPRK” refers to North Korea.)
State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen added America’s alliance with South Korea “will continue to be a linchpin of regional stability and security, and we will continue to meet all our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea.”
On the other hand, the SCMP warns the coming six months could bring even more uncertainty and instability to South Korea, because the acting president’s powers are not well-defined. Also, two of the South Korean Constitutional Court’s nine term-limited justices will probably leave office before the impeachment trial is complete.
Time describes Park as “loathed,” with an approval rating of just 4%, having become the face of government corruption for a public sick to death of it. Protesters view her corruption scandal as “symptomatic of wider problems in South Korean society, including soaring income inequality, ingrained sexism and a lack of social mobility,” in Time’s view.
She is so unpopular that the South China Morning Post speculates she might have trouble finding lawyers to represent her in court, even though meeting the legal standard for upholding her impeachment would appear to be difficult. That might actually make lawyers reluctant to take her on as a client, because they don’t wish to become involved in a successful defense that would enrage the public. (She’ll remain in office until February 2018 if the court overturns her impeachment.)
The Wall Street Journal writes of Park’s impeachment as “a fresh earthquake to hit the global political order following populist referendum victories in the U.K. and Italy, and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president.”
The Journal speculates that Park’s impeachment could shift the power toward left-of-center parties, who value improved relations with China and even North Korea over the close relationship Seoul has developed with Washington. The deployment of American THAAD anti-missile defenses to South Korea has figured prominently in the South Korean Left’s list of complaints, in part because China opposes it so strenuously.
“Trade tension with the U.S. could potentially flare if Ms. Park is replaced by a left-leaning president. Huge public demonstrations against Ms. Park have been swollen by farmers and labor unions seeking more protectionist trade policies and government subsidies for products such as rice,” the WSJ adds.
Another populist angle to the Park political crisis is her relationship to the chaebols, huge family-run business conglomerates. Supporters see them as crucial to South Korea’s industrial success, while detractors say they benefit from political favoritism. One of the major charges against Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil is that she directed large donations from the chaebols to favored foundations, in exchange for promises of favorable treatment by the government.
Almost all of the major candidates to replace Park in a special election hail from the populist Left in South Korea, with only one notable, and still highly speculative, exception: current United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He will complete his term as Secretary General soon, but has not yet confirmed an interest in the presidency. Even if he does, his popularity in South Korea is said to be greatly diminished by his association with Park.