Friday’s removal of Park Geun-hye from the presidency has resounding implications for the state of South Korean democracy. Certainly, there are immediate implications for domestic party politics, as the ruling right (to which Park belonged) and the oppositional left jockey to position their candidates for the upcoming interim presidential election. The country will need to elect a new president within two months of Park’s leaving office, and elections are scheduled to occur on or before May 9. By many accounts, the election is the left’s to lose. Moon Jae-in, the leading candidate, is polling at 32 percent, far ahead of his next-closest opponents, Ahn Hee-Jung (17 percent), Ahn Cheol-soo (9 percent), and acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn (9 percent).
But the election also represents a greater test — or, depending on your vantage point, greater example — of South Korea’s development as a democracy. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1987 democratic constitution, and the pathway to consolidated democracy still has roots in the authoritarian government that preceded it. Parsing these roots and the treatment of civil society opposition brings to light challenges and implications for the future of Korean democracy.
From its founding in 1948 as the Republic of Korea (having been divided from North Korea following liberation after World War II from Japanese Imperial rule), South Korea had struggled to realize substantive democracy. The United States backed Rhee Syngman in the transition from the U.S. military government (1945-48) to the South Korean republic, on the condition that his government embrace elective democratic procedures. But Rhee desired political power, and with the adoption of the National Security Law, passed in 1948 amid fears of communist factions gaining ground in the southwestern cities, was able to use fears of communist espionage and treason to stamp out political opposition.
The ground being laid for such repression of opposition, the military dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye father, who ruled Korea from 1963-1979, made further institutional changes that permitted coercion and suppression of any political competition. In 1972, Park declared martial law and suspended the existing constitution, replacing it with the Yushin (“Restoration”) Constitution, which outlawed any form of political opposition in the name of national security and fears of communism. The Yushin remains controversial: while squashing the vestiges of democratic development and setting up authoritarian rule, it has also been credited with allowing South Korea’s rapid development.
The Struggle for Democracy
Democratization occurred through a protracted struggle, with the final push during the 1980s. A series of visible protests based on alliances between various groups of civil society — labor unions, white collar workers and intellectuals, and students — sought to demand greater political and civil rights from the authoritarian government. The administration of Chun Doo-hwan, who replaced Park Chung-hee in 1979, notoriously used violent suppression of protests and torture tactics by state police to root out opposition organizers. Domestic activists as well as international human rights groups were incensed by the increasingly visible violence, particularly the death of two student activists — one as the result of waterboarding techniques during torture for information, one as the result of injuries sustained from a tear gas grenade used to suppress demonstration at Yonsei University in Seoul.
In 1987, Roh Tae-woo, who graduated in the same 1955 class of the Korean Military Academy as Chun, took a proposal of reforms to Chun. The suggested reforms called for the government to release imprisoned political opposition figures, lift restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, and instantiate direct presidential elections. After the long struggle and increasing domestic and international pressure, the Chun government conceded and hand-picked Roh as his successor.
The beginning of Korea’s democracy had begun, but certainly more work was to be done. As the current Park scandal has shown, formal and informal institutions that block transparency or permit corruption are slowly being revealed and chipped away.
Continued Abuses of Power
Much attention has been focused on the accusations of corruption involving Samsung and other Korean conglomerates, but these are just one indicator of the state of democracy in Korea under Park. Besides the implications of corruption between state and private interests, there are other indications of insufficient checks on presidential power, particularly as it comes to freedom of expression.
During her time in office, the Park administration suppressed media that spoke critically of the government. Japanese correspondent Tatsuya Kato was brought up on charges of defamation for a 2014 article about rumors of Park’s whereabouts during the 2014 Sewol Ferry sinking. Though later acquitted of the charges in court, the incident revealed legal pathways, including criminal defamation laws, to suppress and prosecute persons critical of the government.
The government has also been charged with blacklisting nearly 10,000 artists critical of the Park government. In January this year, Culture Minister Cho Yoon-sun was arrested for abuse of power for drawing up such a list of “left-leaning artists,” allegedly on the direction of the Kim Ki-choon, a former chief of staff for Park. By cutting out government funding and private subsidies and placing them under surveillance, the aim seems to have been to starve them out of opposition.
Rather than looking at only the existence of institutions — such as general elections — it may be helpful to see democracy everywhere as a constant process formed on relationships and rights. Democracy is not only measured by regular elections, but might also take into consideration the degree to which the various governmental branches and organs are responsive to the will of the people, protect individual rights, and make decisions for the common good. A multidimensional approach is helpful in evaluating democratic practices over time.
In a report published in November 2016, available through the East Asia Institute, Jung Kim suggests measuring multiple dimensions to gauge the “democratic depth” of South Korea. First, a democracy should be evaluated by electoral indicators such as the existence of clean and open elections, the degree to which elections affect the chief executive, and freedom of association and of expression. This approach also includes four other dimensions of democracy, such as liberal democracy indicators (protection of individual rights and judicial and legislative constraints on the executive) or deliberative democracy (the process wherein political decisions are made for the common good).
Pointing to the “decay” of judicial constraints on the executive as well as declining civil society participation, Kim concludes Korea has been experiencing a downward trend across every dimension of democracy. Having come through the process of Park’s impeachment and removal from office, what does this say about the development of Korea’s democracy?
Democracy Going Forward
This is not the first time a South Korean president has been impeached, but it is the first time one has been removed from office. In 2004, Roh Moo-hyun was charged with violating national election laws against presidential partiality in parliamentary elections when he encouraged support behind the small Uri Party (which supported Park). The Constitutional Court later found that the charges were not sufficient to warrant removal from office, a decision met with support from the Korean electorate: nearly 60 percent of the Korean public opposed Roh’s impeachment at the time, a far cry from the 78 percent who support Park’s impeachment today.
The fact that Park could follow legal, though opaque, institutionalized pathways to curtail civil society opposition suggests remaining possibility for gross abuses of presidential power. At the same time, the impeachment suggests vital pathways for government opposition that should be reinvigorated for the protection of Korean democracy. The sheer scale of organized and sustained protests in Seoul’s central square against the government corruption and for Park’s impeachment and removal from office indicate institutional responsiveness to public opposition.
In the lead-up to Park’s impeachment vote, the central protest in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square amassed an estimated 1.5 million people. It is notable that these large protests were peaceful, far different from earlier protests against the Chun Doo-hwan administration in the struggle for democratization in the 1980s, during which violence came from both the protesters and police. Moreover, the recent protests were sustained and on-message, reminding the potential for organized opposition to lead to political change.
There is widespread public support for institutional reforms that curtail the possibility for corruption and executive abuse of power. The National Assembly this week is slated to discuss constitutional revisions that would reduce the power of the presidency, tasking the president with diplomatic and national security affairs and entrusting more power to the prime minister for domestic affairs. As Kim Sunhyuk wrote in 2002, “Virtually all the existing consolidated democracies in the contemporary world are predicated on the balance of two elements — vibrant civil society and functional political society.” The real question for South Korean democracy, then, is whether Park will be a scapegoat (albeit a very high-level, visible one) for corruption and abuse of power, or will her removal from office lead to further reforms to curtail presidential power and monitor institutionalized pathways for coercion or suppression of opposition.
Darcie Draudt is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and a Non-Resident James A. Kelly Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. She is also Director of Research at Sino-NK.