On Friday, South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the legislature’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. After months of political uncertainty, Park became the first democratically elected leader in the country to be stripped of her powers, which had been suspended since the legislature’s 234-to-56 impeachment vote in December.
The scandal that brought down Park also led to the demise of the ruling party, engulfed officials and business leaders alike, and has preoccupied South Koreans for months.
The ruling was eagerly awaited. But it’s a beginning more than an end. Here are five things you should know for the road ahead.
1) The ruling was unanimous and unambiguous.
Although most observers had expected the court to uphold the impeachment, the court sent a surprisingly clear message with the unanimous decision. The court upheld most, but not all, of the legislature’s charges against the president. More importantly, it strongly condemned Park for hiding how her friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil had intervened in state affairs for private gain. The decision also criticized Park for denying allegations of misconduct and slamming anyone who raised questions about her actions.
As prosecutors prepare a potential case against Park and pursue charges against others involved, the ruling will be entered as evidence alongside a special prosecutor’s report released last week. That report called Park a co-conspirator with her confidante, but Park’s attorney derided the findings as “fiction.”
The Constitutional Court left no doubts that Park had “betrayed the people’s trust,” “violated the Constitution and laws,” and merited impeachment. It’s hard to overstate the significance of her peaceful removal from office for South Korea’s three-decade-old democracy.
2) Park’s failure to respond immediately to the ruling emboldens a tiny but vocal minority that refuses to accept the ruling.
Park, however, did not personally and unambiguously respond to the ruling. Her attorney declared Friday that he could not accept the ruling and blamed “left-leaning and North Korean-sympathizing” forces in Korean society for Park’s ouster. She also remained in the presidential palace for more than 48 hours after the ruling, with aides explaining that she needed to come to terms with the ruling and prepare her house in another part of Seoul.
Park’s silence prolonged the political crisis. The remnants of the ruling party “humbly respected” the ruling and apologized to the people, and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn has urged acceptance of the ruling. Seeming to continue a pattern of defiance toward the charges against her, Park Geun-hye released a statement through a spokesman Sunday night that ambiguously said, “It may take time, but I believe the truth will be revealed.”
Although dwarfed by celebratory rallies, anti-impeachment rallies outside the Constitutional Court rejected the ruling and turned violent on Friday and Saturday. Three people died and dozens were injured. About a sixth of South Koreans — mostly from the older generations and not even a majority of any age cohort — still support Park or oppose impeachment for various reasons. Word from Park could calm these minority voices and begin healing the deep rifts in Korean society.
3) The public overwhelming supported impeachment, but tackling the root causes of the scandal will take time.
A poll found that 86 percent of Koreans supported the court’s impeachment ruling. The impeachment is being hailed as a victory for the “candlelight revolution.” Hundreds of thousands of citizens — peaking at more than a million in December — participated in weekly candlelight demonstrations for 20 weeks.
Outrage and feelings of injustice drew many, including whole families, to the streets. The revelations of influence-peddling, corruption, and favorable treatment for economic and political elites tapped into many South Koreans’ long-simmering resentment that society was rigged against them. How to solve these problems is less clear.
After the ruling, Park loses immunity from prosecution and may face charges related to abuse of power, bribery and extortion. But focusing blame on her and her confidante won’t root out the widespread corruption and systemic inequities that this scandal laid bare. Ensuring that no one is above the law will help. Already, Choi, several former officials close to her, and the head of Samsung have been arrested on related charges.
But citizens now face the challenge of channeling the energy that fueled the candlelight revolution toward broader reforms that would create a more even playing field in the economic and political spheres.
4) Sixty days is a short time in which to find suitable candidates and run an effective presidential election campaign.
Selecting South Korea’s next president is the most immediate task. It will fill a prolonged leadership vacuum. But progressives and especially conservatives have numerous rifts to overcome to select quality candidates.
Although progressives will probably capture the presidency, their challenge will be to unite behind a single candidate. Polls indicate that the crowded field of candidates is led by Moon Jae-in, a progressive who lost the 2012 election to Park. Ahn Hee-jung, a governor and “hope and change” candidate, is a credible competitor. Ahn may be more palatable to the United States. He has expressed support for the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system (THAAD) in South Korea, sanctions on North Korea, and a cautious approach to engaging the North.
On the conservative side, the remnants of the ruling party have yet to coalesce around a candidate. Hwang may run for president, but the parties on the right are deeply divided and he is tainted by association with Park. Former U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon was expected to run as a conservative, but he withdrew.
Provocations from North Korea — called a “north wind” in South Korean politics — might in the past have tipped the balance in favor of a conservative president, who would take a tougher stance toward the North. But the conservatives’ disarray and the taint of Park make it unlikely that a conservative would capture the presidency this time around.
5) The transition in South Korea is happening amid unusually high tensions in Northeast Asia.
Without the usual transition period, South Korea’s next president will immediately face a host of challenges, perhaps none bigger than the extraordinary regional tensions.
Tokyo and Washington have pledged cooperation with the next South Korean administration, but a progressive president may well bring changes to both relationships. Meanwhile, South Korea’s relations with China are at a nadir, and North Korea’s actions have the region on edge. A progressive president in Seoul may seek to alleviate tensions with these two neighbors in ways that run counter to U.S. interests.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has filled few top Asia positions in government. The State Department is conducting a review of North Korea policy without key staff in place. While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited South Korea and Japan a month ago to reassure these U.S. allies and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits this week, U.S. goals for the region remain unclear.
South Korea’s relations with Japan also have suffered of late. Important agreements that Park reached with Japan have been tarnished by their association with her doomed presidency. Leading members of the progressive parties have called for a renegotiation of the agreements. In addition, Japan’s ambassador to South Korea has yet to return to the country after he was recalled over a dispute late last year. Failing to alleviate these uncertainties and tensions imperils trilateral U.S.-Korea-Japan coordination on North Korea.
North Korea, meanwhile, appears to see little to lose in this climate of uncertainty. Pyongyang apparently killed Kim Jong-un’s half brother, potentially with a banned chemical weapon, and has tested numerous missiles, including four last week. A progressive South Korean president may try drawing Pyongyang away from such provocation through engagement, but such an approach diverges from what Washington appears to be pursuing.
Instead, growing talk of a U.S. (or even Japanese) “pre-emptive strike” on North Korean missile or nuclear facilities, coupled with the North’s apparent pursuit of first-strike and survivable second-strike capabilities, is ratcheting up the risks of conflict on the peninsula. U.S. bases in South Korea and Japan top the North’s list of potential targets.
This reality added steam to efforts to install THAAD. China remains irate over it, and retaliatory measures from China hurt the South Korean economy. Several progressive presidential contenders, including Moon, have opposed THAAD in the past. But parts for it arrived in South Korea earlier last week, and renegotiation seems unlikely.
As South Koreans choose a new president, close and sustained coordination with South Korea and Japan is more important than ever. Deft diplomacy will also be critical. The new administration in Washington and the upcoming political transition in Seoul will complicate these efforts.
Celeste Arrington is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University.