Populism Comes to South Korea

South Korean protesters hold torches during a rally against the president in central Seoul. Photo by Getty Images.
South Korean protesters hold torches during a rally against the president in central Seoul. Photo by Getty Images.

For South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye, the jury is quite literally still out. Impeached by the country’s National Assembly on 9 December over claims of corruption, cronyism and influence peddling, she defiantly rejected – in a detailed statement – all of the charges leveled at her by an independent prosecutor. Any resolution of the issue must now await the ruling of the country’s Constitutional Court on the legitimacy of the impeachment vote – a decision that most likely will come early in the new year.

For the special prosecutor’s office, which is due to start its formal investigation on 21 December, the challenge is to find unambiguous evidence of the president’s direct responsibility for any of the corruption that may have taken place. The president, for her part, can claim, with some credibility that so far she has been tried only in the court of public opinion; that in South Korea’s rumour-prone, scandal-hungry media environment in which prosecutors have been known in the past to leak information to skew public debate, she has been denied natural justice and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Long shadows

But for the more than three-quarters of the Korean public calling for Park’s resignation, the president is symptomatic of Korean society’s wider flaws, including a pattern of corruption, privilege and hypocrisy endemic to the country’s political, economic and social elites. At a time of anemic economic growth (the country’s growth rate is predicted to slow to 2.1% next year), widening wealth and income disparities and reduced employment opportunities for a highly educated workforce, there is a growing mood of populist disaffection with the entire social and political system – for its lack of fairness and transparency and its perceived regulatory inefficiencies. This has been highlighted dramatically by disasters such as the Sewol ferry sinking that claimed the lives of some 300 school-children in August 2014 – at which time the president was castigated for being absent from her office at the time of a grave national crisis.

Complicating the current stand-off is the long-shadow of identity politics and unresolved disagreements about the country’s postwar historical narrative. As the daughter of the man responsible for the Korean economic ‘miracle’ who protected the country from the external communist threat in the North and radical subversion from within, Park’s political lineage is, for the older generation of voters in their sixties and above, a powerful reason to back the beleaguered president.

Already there are signs that this constituency is beginning to rally behind Park, with 30,000 demonstrating on 17 December against the impeachment decision, and with the governing Saenuri party showing signs of a consolidation of power around pro-Park legislators. The president, who has a reputation for stubbornness, may be calculating that this core support may allow her to defy the much larger calls for her resignation. She may also be hoping that the constitutional court, in which the majority of justices are politically conservative, will rule in her favour, allowing her to see out the remainder of her time in office, set to end in February 2018.

A pro-Park ruling by the court seems unlikely given the weight of the circumstantial evidence. Leading opposition politicians, including Moon Jae-in, former head of the Democratic Party and the current front runner in any post-impeachment presidential contest, has warned of a popular ‘revolution’ if the impeachment vote is not upheld. Moreover, the appetite for street protests against the president remains undimmed, and even conservative politicians appear to be positioning themselves for a post-Park era. Ban Ki-moon, the outgoing UN secretary general and long considered a likely Saenuri party candidate for the presidency, has been publicly distancing himself from Park. With 20.5% support, behind Moon on 23.7%, he has compelling reasons to align himself with the popular mood.


At an individual level, the experience of President Park combines both political failure and personal tragedy. She has demonstrably failed to live up to her early commitments to represent all Koreans and to bridge the deep divisions between left and right in Korean society. She has also remained deeply isolated from the professional politicians and democratic polity she purports to lead. This is perhaps not so surprising given her authoritarian heritage and the experience of seeing both her parents assassinated in space of five years in the 1970s. The trauma of this experience reportedly made her distrustful of government officials and overly inclined to rely on the guidance of personal friends of dubious reliability, the font of her current troubles. There is also a profound irony that a politician who came to power vowing to place ‘trust-politik’ at the heart of her policy towards North Korea has seen her political position undermined, perhaps fatally, by a near complete collapse in public confidence in her administration.

More widely, the Park saga reveals an important and potentially seismic shift in public attitudes in South Korea, perhaps spurred by a growing populist trend evident elsewhere, whether in the US, Europe or parts of Southeast Asia. Koreans appear to have lost patience with their political system. This new climate of dissent – emboldened by the signs that protest can potentially lead to radical political change – is likely to prove a challenge to any future Korean leader hoping to secure the trust and legitimacy needed to govern.

John Nilsson-Wright is senior research fellow for northeast Asia with the Asia Programme at Chatham House, senior university lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations at Cambridge University and an official fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge.

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