South Korea’s Finest Hour: Lessons from the Impeachment of Park Geun-Hye


This is a local re-post of an essay I wrote for the Lowy Institute in the wake of the impeachment. My thoughts on the Moon election will come shortly. That is Park behind bars in the photo.

I agree with this analyst from the Washington Post who says South Korea just showed the world how to do democracy. That’s a great way to put it and quite correct. And this is all the more impressive as Western democracy embarrasses itself by veering towards illiberalism and norm-breaking.

Koreans always tell me how great Korea is because of hallyu or hansik, but that’s just fluff talking points. This is what really matters. Well done, South Korea. Now tackle the corruption problem for real so that this doesn’t keep happening.

The full essay follows the jump.


South Korean president Park Geun-Hye was removed from office in March. She was originally impeached by the legislature, the National Assembly, in December. The country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, is required to ratify such a motion for presidential removal. It did. Park is now regular citizen. Crucially, she lost her presidential immunity from criminal prosecution upon judicial completion of impeachment. She now face charges. South Korean opinion, but for a few holdouts who battled police briefly on the day of the court ruling, seems to broadly support prosecution. Park may well be imprisoned by the end of the year.

The scandal which felled Park has been covered extensively elsewhere. Rather here are a three larger political science lessons:

Corruption is now the single most important issue in South Korean domestic politics.

I have argued before for the Lowy Institute that North Korea is the most important issue in South Korean foreign policy, but at home it is now undoubtedly the graft that so scars the upper reaches of Korean politics and business. Outside analysts, most importantly the International Monetary Fund, have argued for years that South Korea needed to be cleaner. Transparency International ranks South Korea at a 52 out of 176 countries scored, a surprisingly high, and obviously disappointing, score for the world’s thirteenth largest economy. In previous years this reached into the 40s, but the sheer scare of ‘Choi-gate’ – named after Park’s grossly corrupt confidante who ignited the scandal – likely worsened the most recent number.

The 1997 crisis that nearly felled the Korean economy was caused by the ‘moral hazard’ of Korean businesses over-borrowing on the (correct) expectation that their buddies in politics would bail them out. Numerous regulatory problems, most prominently the poor safety enforcement which lead to the heart-rending Sewol ferry sinking, are blamed on regulators too cozy with business. So severe has public intolerance of graft become that the government rolled out an extremely strict anti-corruption law – ironically just as Choi-gate was breaking. And now of course, corruption reached so high it brought down the president herself.

To their credit, South Koreans seem increasingly less tolerant of this. One former president after another has been investigated. Conglomerate elites are frequently investigated, and the head of no less than sacred cow Samsung has been swept up in Choi-gate. Remediation is better than nothing, but prevention is the real way to pull down that TI score, and some Korean president soon will have to tackle this root-and-branch.

South Korea needs a vice-president rather than a constitutionally weak, fall-guy prime minister.

One obvious constitutional reason for the uncertainty Choi-gate generated is the curious South Korean prime ministerial position. South Korea is basically a presidential democracy, patterned off the long-standing US ally. That is, it has two separate election cycles, one for the executive, another for the legislature. Yet South Korea also includes an element from parliamentary systems – a prime minister – suggesting that South Korea is actually a ‘semi-presidential system.’ This PM, however, does not have the powers that normal semi-presidential PMs have. S/he requires the president’s approval to stay in office and does not lead a parliamentary majority independent of the president, even though there are separate legislative and presidential elections.

This suggest that this person actually functions like the US vice-president. But even here, the position fails, because the PM only becomes the acting president if the sitting president is removed or dies in office. The constitution requires that a new election be held within 60 days (which will happen under this current acting president on May 9). In practice then, the Korean PM has evolved into a fall-guy role – someone on whom the president can blame screw-ups and fire to sate public demands for accountability. Korean presidents routinely burn through several PMs during their tenure for these political reasons. An obvious solution to this weird, not-really-PM, not-really-vice-president position would be elevate the role to a full-blooded vice president on the US model. This VP could then have stepped into Park’s role and finished her term without the uncertainty of yet another election and the re-setting of the entire constitutional clock. Korean elections have hitherto been held in November. If the next president is to serve the same five-year term as all previous presidents, future presidential elections must now take place in May.

South Korea just gave democracies an exemplar of impeachment.

Full-blown, completed impeachments are rare in democracies. This is almost certainly proper. Impeachment overturns the popular will of an election to the land’s highest office and should be done only in extreme circumstances. Impeachments are purposefully hard to complete; the barriers are intentionally high and constitutional machinery frequently complicated. Often impeachment is threatened or pursued for political purposes and they fail, such as the uncompleted impeachments of US President Bill Clinton or previous South Korean president, Roh Moo-Hyun.

This rarity, although important for democratic stability, also means that there are few exemplars of a completed, legally proper impeachment. Even in the best-known impeachment model to date, that of US President Richard Nixon, the process did not finish. Nixon resigned first.

South Korea has therefore given us in the democracies something very valuable – a model of how to complete a forced presidential removal by rule of law. It is notable that the demonstrations for months against President Park never turned violent. No one died; there was almost no property damage; the protestors even picked up their trash. At the protests’ peak, an astonishing four percent of the national population was on the streets, yet nothing happened. The police presence never had to be supplemented by the military. Anarchists, militants, and other miscreants were not able to latch onto the marches to create political mischief. At no point did this evolve into a ‘color revolution’ or Arab Spring, targeting the state itself.

And the state behaved with commendable legality. The National Assembly followed the constitutional procedure, as did the Constitutional Court. In both bodies, the votes were overwhelming, 256-34 and 8-0, providing overwhelming legitimacy to the impeachment. When the Court read the final verdict, it spoke for nearly an hour, explaining its decision as the whole nation watched. This was an astonishing national civics lesson at the highest level, an education in constitutionalism and rule of law for an entire nation. This sort of moment almost never takes place in modern democracies and illustrated in brilliant detail the vast moral superiority of South Korea over the North. The acting president then gave a similar speech defining South Korea a liberal democratic constitutional state bound by rule of law, and that afternoon, the party which supported Park admitted its mistake after the Court’s final verdict, accepting the judgment and committing itself to work for rule of law and democracy. The only thing really missing was a statement from Park herself. She has yet to fully and publicly admit the legitimacy of her removal, continuing to insist she did nothing wrong.

In short, almost all actors behaved with commendable constitutional responsibility. At time when the president of the world’s oldest democracy lies continuously and populist nastiness is sweeping the West, this was a sobering display of political seriousness and maturity. All democracies have scandals. The question is how they deal with them. South Koreans just gave the world a model performance. In the nine years I have lived in South Korea, I have never been prouder to be here. This was their finest hour.

12 thoughts on “South Korea’s Finest Hour: Lessons from the Impeachment of Park Geun-Hye

  1. “South Korea just showed the world how to do democracy”
    I’m Japanese and I’m not impressed at all… am I missing something? I mean If South Korea was matured democratic country and adhere the rule of law, this(the whole mess) should not even occur in the first place…
    Or, are we under the assumption that South Korea is an immature country and South Korea did good job this time FOR an immature country?

    Sorry about my bad English. Cheers.

    • An old language from Europe tells “errare umanum est”, it means people are not gods and they can commit wrongdoing. So good and mature democracy is not country with no wrongdoing (it’s impossible to get) but as it deals with

      • True. So, I think it is not something we(or I?) dismiss, but also that is not something we(or I) praise about or are impressed by it.

      • I mean, when I dropped my cellphone this mourning and picked it up immediately, nobody said to me “You sure know how to pick it up!”
        I should not have dropped it in the first place…and some might say “Glad you did not break it.” Right?

        Reading through the media, Koreans and the Western media praise what happened in South Korea.(“Candle revolution” thing) This is very weird for me.

        The chaos on the streets and the vacuum of political leadership and the collapse of conservative and lack of meaningful discussions in the election have caused and will cause South Korea serious disadvantages.

        Only conclusion I can get is “It shows South Korea has more troubles in the country than other countries.I’m worried.” And sure it’s not “South Korea just showed the world how to do democracy”

        • First, nobody said anything to you when you dropped your cell phone this morning. What you wrote is only a reflection of what you think someone would say or something you would say.

          You are right to say that South Korea has troubles. In fact, every country on the planet has some sort of problem. It just so happens that corruption, one of South Korea’s biggest problems, was exposed at the highest levels of government. Yes this is worrying. However, what would have been even more worrying is if every Korean citizen did nothing and stood silently.

          There is a lot of praise for this situation in South Korea because of how they handled the issue. They protested for the removal of an extremely corrupt president. The ‘chaos on the street’ which you describe were actually very well organized weekly Saturday protests. Anyone who attended these protests can attest to that. They were attended by families, Middle School students, High School students, University students and just about every segment of society. These protests never became violent.

          The ‘vacuum of political leadership’ which you describe was an election. One which was nearly identical to the one that would have happened in November had the president remained in office. I fail to see how the democratic removal of one president and the election of another will “cause South Korea serious disadvantages.”

          So, in case you haven’t gotten it yet I’ll say it more simply. The result of the situation in Korea is being praised everywhere because of how they dealt with the exposure of their president’s corruption. There was a problem and they did their best to fix it peacefully and within the confines of the law. I don’t see what’s weird about that.

          Hope this helps.

          • It helped me a lot. Thank you!

            First, please let me tell you that I’m not against what Mr. Kerry says.

            However, what I don’t get it is that why you think “what would have been even more worrying is if every Korean citizen did nothing and stood silently.”

            My concern is opposite. I think you don’t have to be worry about if Korean citizen do nothing and stood silently or not. South Korea is lawful country, right? I believe those “massive protest” did not even necessary.

            Ordinary Korean citizens did not have to do that. If politician’s illegal activities
            such as corruption revealed by media or journalist (which is a good job for the journalism), the prosecutors(or whatever “The law guys”) follow the procedure or impeach and all that. Ordinary Korean citizens have the right to elect new and “the right” president in the election. No need to go out to protests on the streets. It is waste of time or even worse.

            The fact that so many Koreans felt they had to go out every night to protest against government shows that they do not trust the rule of law in South Korea. That worries me more. They even pressured and protested in front of the court.

            That was not something you should praise.

            And the new leader won the election pretty much because of Park. Moon won largely because of “everything non-Park” or “anything but Park” and the populist promises such as creating new government jobs without showing any financial basis for that.

            • Some one just pointed me out that there is an article which shares the same concern with much more better English than mine.


              “I find worrisome this glorification of South Korea’s protests,” she says. “If governance structures were working properly then citizens normally would be channeling their concerns through institutional processes—reaching out to their elected leaders, going to the courts. Spilling out into the street is a sign of political dysfunction.”

              There are some signs that other democratic processes are developing alongside protest tactics, such as a campaign to set up a website to help Koreans contact elected officials so they could urge them impeach Park. But for the most part, Koreans strongly distrust their leaders and institutions, which is why they rely so heavily on protest above all other forms of democratic action, Moon says. “Americans should not at all envy the fact that Koreans find resolution though these massive protests,” she says.
              -end of quote

              My skepticism comes from my experience of watching two MASSIVE protests in 2008 against the US beef based on rumors!! and supporting Hwang Woo-suk(aka “Pride of Korea”) in 2006 even though his work had been proven to be fake..

              And both massive protests happened during the progressive Roh Moo-hyun (and Moon) administration.

              They just went nuts just like this time and I’m worried every time Koreans goes nuts because they are so…… easily go nuts (manipulated) based on fake news, rumors and propaganda…no offence…


              From The Times
              May 9, 2008
              South Korean internet geeks trigger panic over US ‘tainted beef’ imports

              Tens of thousands of young internet-obsessed South Koreans, whipped into a frenzy by alarmist television programmes, a complex scientific paper on genetics and a hyperactive online rumour-mill, have held candlelit vigils protesting against imports of American beef.

              Believing that the meat carries a high risk of BSE and that Koreans are genetically predisposed to contracting the linked Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the online masses have taken to the streets, cursing America and demanding that their Government should act to avert catastrophe.
              -end of quote


              Here is an editorial in the Chosun Ilbo that only further validates my belief of how Korean children’s ability to critically think is hampered by their own educational system that allows nonsense like this to be taught in the classroom:
              -end of quote

  2. If I may ask, can you make a comparison of Korea’s impeachment of Park Geun-Hye with Brazil’s impeachment of the president Dilma Rousseff? I’m brazilian, so the comparison is of interest to me, as it helps me understand the specificities of Korea.

    But it’s also that some of the praises to Korea seem overboard, as I don’t remember the news about Brazil having the same tone; it was usually neutral (Europe, North America) or negative (mostly populism-ruled countries, like Venezuela and Bolivia). Perheaphs positive for investors, as the former president was known for irresponsible economic policies. But I have difficulty remembering of an article praising it that highly. Instead, I remember them focusing on the facts and on economic predictions.

    Brazil’s impeachment has just completed a year and many, if not all, of the praises that you gave for Korea also seem to apply to Brazil’s case, with the plus of Brazil having the vice-president assuming, rather than waiting for the election of a new president. So, it makes me wonder why Brazil’s case wasn’t listed as a potential model for Korea, or as a better model than Nixon’s, as Rousseff didn’t resign until the very end of her judgement.

    But then, maybe Korea is under different assumptions than Brazil. Brazil is a western democracy, and Latin America has been under a rise of liberalism, as populism is showing its economic consequences (Venezuela being the most extreme case); the fall of a populist president in favor of a centrist vice might have been expected. Brazil isn’t dealing with a North Korea either, so maybe the major western powers didn’t have much incentive to paint Rousseff’s impeachment under a positive narrative?

    • Correction: The vice’s administration has completed a year; Rousseff’s impeachment is about 8 months. Sorry for the confusion.

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