South Korea Breathes a Sigh of Relief

A rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday calling for the arrest of Park Geun-hye, who was removed from the presidency by the country’s Constitutional Court. Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
A rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Friday calling for the arrest of Park Geun-hye, who was removed from the presidency by the country’s Constitutional Court. Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

There was no hesitation, no ambiguity. On Friday, all eight judges on South Korea’s Constitutional Court voted to remove Park Geun-hye from the presidency.

The historic vote sent shivers down the spines of many South Koreans. Three months ago, the National Assembly impeached Ms. Park on charges of corruption, breach of trust and dereliction of duty. Ms. Park has denied the charges, but the justices disagreed, saying she abused her authority.

Ms. Park is now an ordinary citizen. Without presidential immunity, she will most likely face criminal charges. It is a rapid fall from grace for a woman who became the first female president of South Korea, and now the first president to be stripped legally of her position.

And she should be. Ms. Park has indeed been corrupt and incompetent, letting her friend Choi Soon-sil use the government to extort $69 million from businesses for personal gains, but she also did so much more than that. She ran this country aground in pursuit of her conservative agenda and actively undermined South Korea’s hard-won democracy and international standing. One more year in power, and the damage she inflicted would have been irreversible.

Ms. Park’s ascent to power was ominous. Just days before the 2012 presidential election that she won, claims surfaced that the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, was trying to influence the outcome. People working for the opposition party found an intelligence agent holed up in a studio apartment in Seoul, from where she had been spreading conservative propaganda on the internet. Law enforcement officers covered up the crime, and Ms. Park coasted to victory. Only later was it revealed that the National Intelligence Service had sent out more than 1.2 million tweets to support her and her Saenuri Party.

Once in power, Ms. Park mounted fierce attacks on the labor movement, long a thorn in the conservatives’ side. In October 2013, the government began an effort to deregister the left-wing Korean Teachers and Educational Workers’ Union. Two months later, the police ransacked the offices of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions under the pretext of finding railway union leaders who had been protesting privatization. The Justice Ministry eventually succeeded in sending a leader of the union, Han Sang-gyun, to prison for staging what it called an illegal antigovernment demonstration.

In April 2014, the nation witnessed the Sewol ferry sinking, which claimed more than 300 victims, 250 of them high school students. When families of the victims called for an independent inquiry into the disaster, the presidential office and the ruling party agreed to their demands, but rendered the special commission toothless. Conservatives, including lawmakers from her party, took to demonizing the families as “pro-North Korea commies,” as they often do to smear critics.

Ms. Park was determined to unite the country not through reason or dialogue but by brainwashing young minds. In 2015, her officials announced that middle school and high school history textbooks produced by private publishers would be replaced with government-issued ones by 2017. Many scholars condemned the plan, and international media reported the news with incredulity. When the Education Ministry finally revealed the new books this year, they were riddled with errors and right-wing bias. At least they will not be compulsory any longer.
But South Korea will suffer for a long time from a choice Ms. Park made last July to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, a United States-made missile defense system. Impeachment froze her powers, but the prime minister and acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn, her ally, pushed ahead with the plan, finalizing the land deal for the site and beginning the deployment this week.

The Park administration, as pro-American as it is conservative, has argued that the system is a necessary defense against North Korea. Experts disagree. The deployment has incensed China, which sees the system as a threat. In return, Beijing is putting in place policies that will hurt the South Korean economy.
As the Choi Soon-sil scandal unfolded, memories of Ms. Park’s earlier initiatives started to fade, supplanted by an image of a vacuous woman. Her alleged fondness for medical injections and purchase of Viagra pills to treat altitude sickness on state visits have become a big part of that image.

But it must not be forgotten that in her four-year tenure, Ms. Park has been an ardent champion of public security to the detriment of democracy. Her administration attempted to derail reform of the National Intelligence Service, oversaw the disbandment of a small leftist party — ostensibly for threatening national security — and maintained a blacklist of cultural figures who spoke out against government policies or supported opposition politicians. All this has made Ms. Park a great leader in the eyes of the conservatives, but a terrible one for South Korea.

With a new election on the horizon, there is hope that the next president might undo some of the damage Ms. Park has inflicted on the nation. It would mean expanding stronger labor rights, reforming or even dismantling the intelligence service, encouraging a more critical look at the past by reinstating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Ms. Park’s conservative predecessor Lee Myung-bak did away with and reconsidering the Thaad system altogether.

For now, though, the people are entitled to a sigh of relief. Park Geun-hye is no longer president of the Republic of Korea. That will be a source of comfort until the next political fight begins.

Se-Woong Koo is the publisher of the online magazine Korea Exposé.

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