The crisis that has gripped politics and paralyzed government in Seoul for more than a month looks set to drag on well into 2017. Scotching hopes of a quick ruling on President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment – the opposition Minjoo Party called for a verdict as early as January 31 – the Constitutional Court, in whose hands Park’s fate lies, said on December 12 that it will fully review all grounds cited in the impeachment motion that the National Assembly passed by a decisive 234 votes to 56 on December 9. Since this bill contained 13 separate charges – five alleged violations of the Constitution and eight of criminal law – the Court may well take the full 180 days permitted; meaning no judgment till June, with a new president (if Park’s impeachment is upheld) to be elected in August. This prolonged political limbo will test South Korea’s institutions on several fronts. Fortunately they are robust.
In this unprecedented situation, the challenge is twofold: to maintain effective government as the enervating “Choi-gate” scandal continues to unfold, and then ensure an orderly transition – if it comes to that. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who is now the acting president, never expected this role and must tread carefully. An unpopular former prosecutor whom only last month Park had sought to replace – a gesture the opposition rebuffed – Hwang’s powers and abilities alike are unclear. Minjoo had wanted him gone too, but relented to avoid instability.
Resolving one immediate question, Hwang swiftly reaffirmed the incumbent minister of strategy and finance (also a deputy premier), Yoo Il-ho. In November, Park had nominated Yim Jong-yong, who chairs the Financial Services Commission (FSC), as MOSF. Continuity may reassure the markets, yet in an economy underperforming in many ways Yoo has few tools beyond well-worn fiscal stimulus. Much-needed reforms must await a new president. An efficient bureaucracy will keep things ticking, but is ill-equipped for fresh initiatives.
On the security front, North Korea will seek to exploit the South’s weakness. Kim Jong-un on December 11 supervised a military exercise featuring a simulated attack on the Blue House. The North denies claims that it recently hacked a Southern military intranet. The hope must be that Kim will keep his powder dry as he awaits the U.S. presidential transition in January.
In that regard, ironically South Korea’s main concern now comes from friend rather than foe: namely what to expect from the incoming U.S. administration. In the past Donald Trump had attacked the KORUS bilateral free-trade agreement, and demanded that Seoul pay the full costs of hosting U.S. forces (USFK). In office he may prove less destabilizing, but the uncertainty is worrying. His line on North Korea is unclear too: Trump has said he could meet Kim Jong-un, but his hard-line security appointments and other comments he has made suggest otherwise.
The “Choi-Gate” Circus Rolls on
Meanwhile, no fewer than four ongoing probes will ensure that Choi-gate remains high in the headlines, stoking public anger and sapping confidence in political and business elites. State prosecutors continue their investigations. On December 11 they indicted two more suspects: an ex-vice minister of culture – a sphere where Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil wielded special influence – and a former senior presidential secretary. Another former top aide, Woo Byung-woo, the subject of several ethical allegations, went to ground for several weeks. With a bounty out for him, he finally resurfaced and has pledged to testify. That could be interesting.
Separately, an independent counsel team commissioned by the National Assembly and headed by a former prosecutor has begun its work. Its remit is to review all the charges and determine whether Park should face prosecution after her presidency ends (she has immunity while still in office). With a staff of over 100, this is South Korea’s largest ever such investigation. It has up to 120 days to report, so its verdict will feed into the Constitutional Court’s deliberations.
The National Assembly is also holding its own hearings. On December 6 it grilled the heads of major conglomerates, among others, on their links to Choi: in particular, whether donations to two foundations she ran had any quid pro quo. Televised live – the ultimate reality TV – this spectacle did the chaebol no favors. Many of their chairmen, unused to harsh scrutiny – the last such session was way back in 1988 – appeared evasive. Lee Jay-yong, who now runs Samsung (his father Lee Kun-hee has been comatose since 2014 yet is nominally still group chairman), was especially unimpressive, some lawmakers jeered that he was unfit for the job.
This week, parliament’s focus switched to Park’s mysterious seven-hour absence on April 16, 2014, the day the Sewol ferry tragically sank with over 300 fatalities, mostly schoolchildren. Lurid rumors of sex or shamanic rituals had swirled, but the suggestion now is that Park may have been undergoing a medical or cosmetic procedure. There is no smoking gun on this yet.
Ultimately, though, the Constitutional Court is what counts. It will probably endorse Park’s impeachment, given the margin of the parliamentary vote and the strength of public feeling; the latter seen both in seven weeks (so far) of huge but peaceful demonstrations across the nation, and in opinion polls where Park’s support has plummeted to 4-5 percent. Yet this outcome is not guaranteed. All nine justices were appointed by conservative presidents, either Park or her predecessor Lee Myung-bak; and as with the U.S. Supreme Court, their personal ideologies reflect this. Two impending retirements are a further wild card. The term of Park Han-chul, the chief of the court, is due to end on January 31, followed by another justice, Lee Jung-mi, on March 14. This will reduce the nine-strong bench to seven, of whom six must support impeachment for it to pass. Appointing justices is a presidential prerogative, and it is not clear if Hwang has the authority to do so; that would in any case be politically highly contentious.
The coming months will not be easy for South Korea, nor good for its governance. Although unlikely, the fear is that if the Constitutional Court does not endorse Park’s impeachment, the prospect of her return to office – albeit only for a few months as her term ends in February 2018 – despite being utterly discredited would provoke fury on the streets and precipitate a full-blown political crisis. With her authority irretrievably lost, why Park chooses to cling and fight on remains a mystery. It does neither her nor her country any favors.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.