Friday, December 9, 2016, was a historic day in South Korea. President Park Geun-hye was confronted with a vote on the motion to impeach her in the national assembly, which resulted in a 234-56 vote in favor of impeachment. This is now uncharted territory for the Korean government and people as the motion is now waiting a ruling from the constitutional court; this is the first impeachment process in which the president is directly involved in the scandal, meaning Park may be the first democratically elected president in South Korean history to be fully impeached. In light of the Choi scandal, this move may be the only way for South Koreans to restore faith in Korea’s highest office, and the political system in general. Due to this historic occasion, this entire post will be devoted to the impeachment. The first section will outline the scandals cited in the motion, while the second will explore the future of South Korea, showing a possibility for each plausible ruling and outlining possible effects on other aspects of Korean politics and economy.
The Road to Impeachment: Park’s 2014-2016 Leadership Crisis
President Park Guen-hye has been wrapped in scandal for the past few months as South Koreans come to the streets in numbers not seen since the Democratization movement of the 1980s; two weeks ago (November 26), 1.5 million protested throughout the country and last weekend 1.7 million took to the streets (New York Times; Voice of America). Protests of this magnitude rocked Korea for six straight weekends as the National Assembly worked to bring Park face to face with an impeachment motion. But what exactly caused the demise of Park? The answer, though seemingly simple, is a tad complex and the impeachment motion placed several issues on the block for reasons to impeach Park (Yonhap). Incidents cited in the motion included the Sewol tragedy and the current Choi scandal. Both are detailed below.
Way before the current scandal started to unravel any legitimacy President Park retained through her last two years, another scandal shook the foundations of her presidency. On the morning of April 16, 2014, the Sewol ferry capsized during a journey to Jeju Island as it carried mostly high school students. Throughout the day, the death toll quickly rose; around 6:30pm local time, Yonhap ran a headline saying 292 had died in the incident (Yonhap). The sinking and the following investigation revealed a web of corruption charges against the owner of the ferry and his family, and many of the crew were unable to escape scrutiny and, in some cases, even charges (BBC; Yonhap; Yonhap); however, the lack of action by President Park drew international criticism. The ferry sank at 8:45am. Park, however, did not show up on the site until 5:15pm. (Author knows from personal experience that it takes around 5 hours maximum to travel across the southern half of the peninsula, and that includes a long stop to get food.) These 7 hours are still shrouded in mystery, though Park did receive several briefings on the incident throughout the day (Korea Times). It would take the current revelations to get some answers on the president’s whereabouts as the Sewol tragedy unfolded. An article released in the HanKyoreh revealed that Park got her hair dressed for 90 minutes during that time period (HanKyoreh*). Park’s staff quickly refuted the time, saying the hairdresser was only there for 20 minutes (Asia Correspondent; Yonhap). This was not the only aspect which drew criticism, however. During the rescue operations, several difficulties arose, including communication difficulties between agencies which made the rescue operation difficult (Korea Herald). In response, Park dissolved the Korean Coast Guard (Reuters). This scandal shook President Park’s seeming infallibility as her approval ratings dipped below 40% for the first time (Korea Times). The sinking brought Koreans – both grieving family and supporters – to Gwanghwamun Square in protest of the government’s actions on that fateful day (The Telegraph). In May of 2015, protesters gathered to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, while also criticizing the lack of independence in the government’s investigation into the incident (Amnesty International). Though the political fallout from this incident was not as damning as the current scandal, at the time, it started the downward spiral which would become Park’s final two years in office.
Fast forward to 2016, and President Park becomes embroiled in the scandal which, in the end, was the final straw for the South Korean people. It started in July when students, while protesting the opening of a night school for employees, demanded an investigation into the Choi scandal at an 86-day sit-in (Korea Times). Four months later, JTBC started to run stories questioning the relationship between Park and Choi. One of the earlier stories, released online October 26, called into question the influence Park and Choi had in terms of the Mir Foundation – one of Choi’s two foundations currently under investigation – and the possibility that Park had shared confidential documents with Choi (JTBC*). Following these revelations, Park gave her first televised apology two days later. During her speech, Park admitted that Choi had edited speeches during her 2012 campaign, and that she had shared some documents with Choi (Bloomberg). The speech came after Park had called for a major constitutional revision which opposition lawmakers saw as creating a distraction from the allegations (The Korea Page). On October 30, Choi returned to Korea and was subsequently arrested on November 3, charged with influence peddling and abuse of power (Choson Ilbo; AlJezzera; New York Times). The charges reflected the situation, as Choi allegedly used her relationship with Park to force companies to donate to her two foundations (Korea Times); promote appointments of people to powerful positions within the government and private sectors (KBS); edited speeches for the president while also having access to a variety of classified material (JoongAng Daily); and even had influence in the diplomatic and political situations of the government despite not holding an official position in the Park administration (International Business Times). The investigation continued through November. And, on November 4, Park gave her second apology speech in which she outlined her relationship with Choi (Korea Times). On November 20, prosecutors announced their desire to charge Park herself with collusion, though under the constitution she is unable to be tried while in office (The Guardian). On November 29, Park gave her third apology speech, delegating the shortening of her term over to the National Assembly. South Koreans of all walks of life demurred her remarks, arguing that she step down on her own (Kyunghyang Shinmun). As the story continued to unravel, Park lost all of her legitimacy as the leader of the South Korean people. Her overall approval ratings tanked quickly, eventually reaching 4%, an all-time low for any democratically elected president in South Korea (Reuters). For six straight weeks, protestors lined the streets of Seoul, and throughout the country, calling for her resignation in record numbers; the final weekend before the vote – December 3 – 1.7 million people protested throughout the country (Voice of America). It was this scandal which ultimately brought Park down, resulting in the impeachment vote on Friday. (For a good timeline of the scandal, see this Financial Times article.)
These two scandals formed the basis of the impeachment motion which was introduced on December 3. Before its introduction into the Assembly, Saenuri lawmakers advised the opposition to remove the reference to the Sewol tragedy and focus on the charges levied against the president by the prosector’s office (Sputnik). The motion went to a full vote on December 9. Around 4pm local time, Chung Sye-kyun announced the results of the vote: 234 in favor, 56 opposed, 2 abstaining, 7 unaccounted (Yonhap*). With the passage of the motion, Park is stripped of all powers and Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will be acting president. As for the motion, the Constitutional Court will review it and has 180 days to render a verdict either upholding the motion or rescinding it.
A Web of Uncertainty: Post-Impeachment South Korea
For the foreseeable future, the Constitutional Court will be debating the motion, hearing from both sides, and then render a verdict to uphold or rescind it. If they uphold the verdict, South Korea will enter a period with a political vacuum. If rescinded, Park may be forced out office through resignation. No matter what the court decides, South Korea will enter a period of unprecedented political turmoil which may spark a small economic recession, worry South Korean alliances, and provide North Korea with an opportune time to launch a provocation.
If the court rules in favor of this motion with a minimum of 6 votes, President Park will be formally removed from office and an election will be triggered within 60 days of the ruling to fill the vacuum left by the impeachment motion. Until the election, Prime Minister Hwang Kho-ahn will remain acting president. As for who will win the election, at the moment it is tough to decipher. But there are a few front runners who may throw their hat into the presidential ring. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon currently holds the top spot among prospective candidates. In September, Yonhap reported his ratings at 32.7%, almost double his closest competitor (Yonhap). Ban is a conservative and has thought of joining the ruling party if he decides to run. In an article, a staff reporter at the HanKyroeh ranked Ban against other top ruling perspective candidates (HanKyoreh). However, the current scandal has soured the ruling party in Ban’s eyes; many experts have hinted that running on the ticket would be a bad idea (Korea Times; Reuters). However, Ban’s possibilities may be hindered by the simple fact that he has been based in New York for a decade and has not run for office in South Korea (Reuters). (Ban Ki-moon has yet to declare his intent to run.) Ban’s closest competitor, former Minjoo Party leader Moon Jae-in, polled at 17.3% in the Yonhap article (Yonhap). In 2012, Moon Jae-in ran an unsuccessful race against Park, winning only 48% of the vote (New York Times; Washington Post). Currently, Moon is under heavy fire for his actions during a 2007 UN resolution vote. In his memoir, ex-President Roh Moo-hyun’s Foreign Minister Song Min-soon, revealed that Moon Jae-in, then Roh’s chief of staff, backed a resolution to seek advice from North Korea regarding the vote (Korea Times). If elected, Moon Jae-in may also seek to reverse the policy of trustpolitik – Park’s North Korea policy – favoring a Sunshine 2.0. Other opposition candidates also have major baggage coming with them; another presidential hopeful, Park Won-soon, heads a party which was against a North Korean human rights legislation and also hinted at justifying the sinking of the Cheonnan (One Free Korea). The political landscape of Korea following the ousting of Park is a very murky one. No party has backed a candidate yet, though many hopefuls are working to place themselves in the public eye. If the election comes sooner rather than later, the opposition will have a chance in winning, since the Saenuri party will have to rebrand and distance itself from Park. This may take a while to do effectively.
However, if the court decides to rescind the motion, or fails to come to a super majority in favor in upholding the decision, Park’s powers as the president will be reinstated. If this result comes to fruition, the public may express outrage against the Constitutional Court. President Park will also face yet another legitimacy crisis; she will have to govern a country which does not see her as a leader. This is even more crucial as her approval rating inched up to 5% after the impeachment vote (Reuters). She will have to quickly work to reassure the South Korean public that she has their best interest in mind if she wishes to stay in power. A seeming impossibility after the Choi scandal. The public, however, would be the least of concerns. If placed back in power, Park will face a very strong opposition with a majority following the National Assembly elections in April 2016 (HanKyroeh). Currently, the opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment of THAAD, a major milestone of the Park administration, releasing a statement saying “an administration impeached by the people cannot push forward with the project” (Korea Times). The opposition may only grow more fervent in their demurring of Park’s policy ideas if her presidential powers are reinstated. Facing such a difficult turmoil in implementing and creating policy, as well as growing unpopularity with the Korean people, the best strategy if the motion is rescinded is to resign. With a resignation, Park will show her solidarity with the people, which may raise her approval ratings overall.
Impeachment motions in Korea have created a sense of economic uncertainty. In 2004, during the impeachment proceedings of Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea’s economy grew by only 2.9%, compared with 6.9% growth the previous year (The Guardian). The current motion, however, will have less an impact on the Korean economy in the near term. Following the impeachment, South Korea’s KOSPI index shrank from 2031.7 to 2024.69. However, since the impeachment, the KOSPI index has continued to rise (Bloomberg Markets). Economic minister Yoo Il-ho ensured the Korean public that the impeachment vote will have a minimal effect on the Korean economy (Yonhap). Other factors, however, may continue to hinder the economy of South Korea. For example, the Samsung galaxy incident and shipbuilders are experiencing a downsizing (Bloomberg). As it currently stands, the impeachment motion itself will have a minimal effect on the economy, which has endured shock due to political uncertainty.
South Korea also faces a strong political delay in both domestic and international politics. The biggest domestic issue taking a back seat to the scandal is the textbook issue. On November 28, South Korea’s Ministry of Education revealed the first draft of the controversial textbooks, featuring a wide array of edits (Yonhap). The issue of state-authored history textbooks brought many to Seoul to protest the Park administration and, as of now, Hwang has done nothing to stop the publication of the textbooks – though one can understand why his mind may be elsewhere right now – and there is little to hint that a change will occur (Yonhap). Internationally, THAAD and the future of the American-Korean alliance have also taken a back seat. Korea has been unable to work with the American president-elect to ensure the alliance remains strong. The deployment of THAAD also has an unclear future. Opposition parties are calling for a delay in the deployment – see above paragraph – while General Brooks said there would be no delay in THAAD deployment on the peninsula (Yonhap). As Hwang struggles to take on the burden of presidential power, there is little to hint at a change in the status-quo in the Korean political situation until a new leader is selected. If the opposition party is placed in power, then, with a majority in the National Assembly and Presidential Office control, may work to overturn the more controversial aspects of Park’s policies.
South Korea is entering a point of uncertainty as it enters 2017. Park had her leadership stymied by her relationship with a close friend, Choi Soon-sil, and South Korean political leadership has had to focus on restoring public faith in the highest office in the country. This means major domestic issues, for example state-authored textbooks, and foreign policy issues, such as THAAD deployment and preparation for the new American president, have taken a back seat as the resolution works its way through the legal structure.
The presidential election is the key aspect to determining South Korea’s future, though it is difficult to predict the outcome. If the opposition parties are able to secure a victory, Park’s more controversial moves – textbooks, THAAD, closing Kaesong – may be up for reconsideration. Also, the next presidential candidate will shoulder the burden of securing a strong alliance with the United States and the imcoming Trump administration. Through the turbulence, South Korea’s political future is tough to predict. Economically, however, South Korea seems to maintain the status-quo and will not face a serious slide in the aftermath of this election. Park’s impeachment in light of the Choi revelations places Korea in a place of uncertainty as it enters 2017, and has stalled political advancement in both domestic and international arenas. Hwang will have a difficult time maintaining the status-quo as impeachment runs through the court, but it appears he is taking this new responsibility on with stride.
*Source is in Korean
 There is a lot of nuance and information missing from my current analysis since I tried to write a short summary. If you have a question or wish for me to elaborate on the points presented in this post, please post your question in the comments section and I shall elaborate to the best of my ability, with additional sources.
 Between these two scandals, in November 2015, Park introduced a policy for Korea to return to state-authored textbooks, which only multiplied public resentment of her following the Sewol sinking.
 Despite being impeached, Park is still the sitting president, barring a ruling from the Constitutional Court. Once a South Korean president is impeached, they lose all political power such as appointing judges to courts, influencing and creating domestic and foreign policy. But impeached presidents in Korea get to live in the Blue House and retain the title of president until the court rules on the motion.
(I apologize that some sections may be lacking in terms of clarity and analysis – I tried to write and get this up quickly. Any questions may be addressed in the comments and I promise to clarify and also elaborate on anything missing in this post. Also, I am able to answer any questions about the situation with more sources.)