On the future of South Korea’s politics


Activists of all ages gather in Seoul city center for a candlelight rally on Dec. 10, 2016.
Photo credit: 
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

South Korea’s Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary decision to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Friday. She becomes the country’s first democratically elected leader to be forcibly removed from power, following allegations of corruption that have incited widespread protests for months.
Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, answers some questions about the impact of Park’s impeachment and path ahead for South Korea.
What happens next?
The ruling declares that President Park is no longer president and that she must vacate Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean head of state. Indeed, she returned to the residence where she had lived before assuming the presidency. A presidential election will be held within 60 days, most likely on May 9. In the meantime, South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was appointed as acting president, will continue in that role until the election. 
The decision made by the court was only one part of the investigation into Park’s political scandals and alleged corruption. The verdict delivered on March 10 states that Park committed a grave violation of constitutional law. Park could still face charges for corruption and cronyism, as a separate legal process is ongoing, and she could be put into jail.
How are people in South Korea responding to the ruling so far?
Most people are accepting the ruling. The decision to confirm Park’s impeachment was largely expected. One noteworthy aspect of the ruling, though, was its unanimity – all eight judges on the court voted to confirm her impeachment. This collective stance aimed to message an agreement that ‘it’s time to move on’ and to minimize the potential for discord in government and society.
Following months of protests in Seoul, the reactions on the streets have been fairly restrained. However, there is a contingent that supported Park throughout the trial and they still refuse to accept the ruling. Park herself also expressed defiance, rather than accepting the verdict, reportedly saying, “It will take time, but the truth will eventually be revealed.” Political tensions will continue, perhaps even after the upcoming election.
What motivated the protests and impeachment process, and what does it represent?
Beyond the political scandals, the protests are more broadly an expression of popular discontent over a range of issues. Following two decades of rapid modernization, South Koreans are experiencing growing inequality, high youth unemployment, and fatigue over two presidential terms by conservative parties. Civic participation was a main driver behind the protests. The protests were large scale and prolonged but certainly not unusual for South Korea. Historically speaking, South Korea has a pattern of a strong state setting itself against a contentious civil society. As was evident in 2016-17, political parties, instead of addressing the issues and public opinion, were being led by the movements themselves.
The impeachment trial and civic activism represent neither a crisis of politics nor a crisis of democracy for South Korea. Rather, it shows that Korean democracy has progressed since it accelerated its democratic transition in the late 1980s. Throughout Park’s case, democratic procedures were followed by the National Assembly, special prosecutor and the Constitutional Court – and that’s a good sign. Nonetheless the real test for Korean democracy may yet have to come, as some supporters of Park and perhaps she herself have indicated that the verdict is unfair and unconstitutional. Going forward, I am still optimistic that these events will encourage the government to be more careful with exercise of power and more attentive to societal issues.
What are the main issues that the government now faces?
National unity and stability will be the main priorities of the next president of South Korea. He or she will have to find a way to bridge the deep divide between progressives and conservatives, and work on the issues that have motivated such wide unrest across the country. An orderly presidential election and transfer of power from the Park administration to the next are equally essential. The next president faces a unique circumstance, however, in that the new administration will begin its work the day following the election, without the typical transition period.
These events also underscore the limitations of the current single five-year term presidential system in South Korea. While the Korean presidency is still powerful, the current system has proved to be ineffective as the president becomes a 'lame duck' after 3 or 4 years into office, making it difficult to pursue any long-term policy agenda. Korea needs constitutional reform to enact a greater balance of power and policy continuity.

Read more about this topic in a paper featured in the academic journal Asian Survey and an analysis piece in The Diplomat by Gi-Wook Shin and Rennie J. Moon, or watch a video featuring a panel discussion from earlier this year.