South Korea enters 2017 in the grip of a political crisis that may also have important ramifications for the wider North East Asian region and beyond.
On 9 December 2016, the 300-member South Korean National Assembly voted by 234 to 56 to impeach President Park Geun-hye, the first step in her removal from office. The vote was well over the required two-thirds majority, indicating that significant sections of her own right-wing Saenuri Party had also turned against her.
Following the impeachment vote, Park retains the title of President and her residency in the Blue House (the official residence of South Korean rulers) but the exercise of her duties is suspended, passing to Prime Minister Hwang Gyo-an, until the National Assembly’s decision is confirmed or otherwise by the Constitutional Court, which has up to 180 days to deliberate. If at least six of the court’s nine judges uphold parliament’s decision, she will be removed from office and a presidential election must be held within 60 days.
The parliamentary vote to impeach Park, the daughter of the brutal military dictator Park Jung Hi, who ruled with an iron fist from when he seized power in a military coup in 1961 until he was assassinated in 1979, followed months of popular protests that saw her public approval ratings drop to as low as 4%. Every weekend since September hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in the centre of the capital city Seoul and in other major cities demanding her resignation. The weekend prior to the impeachment vote, an estimated 2.3 million South Koreans took to the streets to demonstrate, making them the largest protests in South Korean history. They have continued since the impeachment vote, with some 300,000 people demonstrating in Seoul alone on 17 December.
The immediate cause of the popular protests was the exposure of the corrupt nexus between Park and her long time friend and confidant Choi Soon-sil. Choi heads a religious cult founded by her late father, who in turn enjoyed a close relationship with Park’s father, especially after he convinced him that he could communicate with his late wife following her assassination. Despite holding no official position of any kind, it has emerged that Choi revised Park’s speeches and influenced everything from her choice of clothes to her policy on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Moreover, Choi used her position of proximity to the president to extract huge donations, totalling tens of millions of dollars, for foundations linked to her cult, from South Korea’s biggest capitalist corporations, known as chaebols. In a number of cases, the capitalists targeted for these donations had been facing jail time for their criminal activities, but were then pardoned by Park. As the Wall Street Journal reported on 5 December:
“Park has pardoned top executives convicted of crimes, for example, Chung Mong-koo, chair of Hyundai Motor Group, sentenced to three years for embezzlement, pardoned without serving any time. One of the foundations allegedly controlled by Choi was funded by 15 of South Korea’s largest conglomerates. The chairmen of Samsung, SK, Hanwha, Hyundai Motor and CJ groups have all been pardoned in the past decade.”
Besides this, further charges were added to Park’s rap sheet in the National Assembly, including ones related to her response when the Sewol ferry sank in April 2014. The MV Sewol capsized whilst en route from the port of Incheon to Jeju island carrying 476 passengers, the majority of them secondary school students. In all, 304 passengers and crew lost their lives in the disaster. It has emerged that, for hours as the tragedy unfolded, Park remained uncontactable and it is now alleged that she was callously continuing with having her hair done. When she did finally make it to the scene, she was clearly woefully ill-informed and disinterested.
But beyond these immediate causes, the huge protests against Park, and the desire for change that they embody, reflect much broader discontent in South Korean society, focused, among other things, on the deepening gap between rich and poor, as well as the steady erosion of South Korea’s already limited bourgeois democracy, including the silencing of critics, the revelation of blacklisting of cultural and intellectual personalities, the suppression of strikes, and the banning of an opposition party that stood for workers’ rights and national reunification.
The South Korean economy is stagnating, with the latest OECD forecast putting growth for 2017 at just 2.6%. Exports, which comprise about 45% of the country’s GDP, shrank by 3.2% year-on-year in October after a 5.9% drop in September. Hanjin Shipping, which was once South Korea’s largest shipping company and one of the biggest in the world, declared bankruptcy in August. Household debt exploded to a record $1.15 trillion by mid-year – the eighth highest in the world.
Adding to the Park regime’s unpopularity has been its appeasement of Japan, Korea’s former colonial oppressor, most recently an agreement to share military intelligence against the DPRK, as well as the agreement to deploy the Pentagon’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, targeted not only at the DPRK but also on China, in the south east of the country, despite massive protests by farmers and others. (For background on the THAAD issue, see ‘THAAD in South Korea – China warns the US: you’re playing with fire’, Lalkar, September 2016).
As a result, a headline in the Wall Street Journal of 9 December read, “South Korea impeachment of President Park is latest hit to global political order; likely successors to President Park take different views on ties with Washington, free trade and big business.”
The article went on to state that her impeachment “brings the prospect of a new government for one of the US’s closest allies that could have a sceptical stance toward Washington, a softer line on Pyongyang and a friendlier approach to China”. Clearly not a prospect to be relished by US imperialism.
On 16 December, the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), a US think tank, published an analysis of the policies towards the DPRK of the likely candidates in any upcoming South Korean presidential election. This followed statements by Moon Jae-in, from the Minjoo (Democratic) Party, who currently leads in the opinion polls, that he would shelve THAAD installation and would visit the DPRK before visiting the USA or other countries. PIIE stated:
“The next president of south Korea could spell major changes for inter-Korean policy. Despite splintering on the left, the candidates from the Minjoo Party have a significant momentum advantage going into the next presidential elections. Meanwhile, amid the Park Geun-hye scandal and subsequent impeachment, the Saenuri Party looks to be imploding.”
Moon, who previously ran for the presidency in 2012, was Chief of Staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun. During Roh’s term of office, relations between the north and south of the divided Korean nation reached their best point ever, with Roh enjoying a highly successful summit with late DPRK leader Comrade Kim Jong Il in 2007.
PIIE noted Moon’s well-established support for inter-Korean cooperation, such as his statements that investment by South Korean firms in the north would aid the South Korean economy, as well as his call for “balanced diplomacy” between the USA and China and his view that it is “inappropriate for the THAAD deployment process to go on under the current political circumstances”, described by PIIE as “a clear nod to Chinese concerns”. Moon has stated that any benefits from THAAD deployment would be curtailed by worsened relations with neighbours Russia and China.
He has also called for the immediate restart of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), an inter-Korean cooperation project that enabled many mid-level South Korean companies to manufacture in the north, but which was unilaterally closed by the Park regime following a satellite launch by the DPRK last February. Reporting Moon’s statements on 16 December, the Wall Street Journal observed:
“Most other leading contenders, left of centre like Mr Moon, support closer ties to China and a less confrontational approach with north Korea.”
This observation is borne out by PIIE’s analysis. For example, Lee Jae-myung, another possible candidate for the Minjoo Party and the current Mayor of Seongnam, has offered to unconditionally meet with current DPRK leader Comrade Kim Jong Un, has been sceptical of THAAD deployment and has criticised Park’s sell outs to Japan, saying the country should instead be treated as a military foe. He has attacked the closing of the Kaesong complex, saying that sanctions against the DPRK are hurting the South Korean economy more than that of the north.
The likely candidate from another opposition party, Ahn Cheol-soo, co-leader of the People’s Party, has argued that economic cooperation with the DPRK would help connect his hometown of Busan with Paris, echoing the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative for Eurasian connectivity and integration. He has also strongly opposed THAAD deployment.
So far, the only vaguely credible candidate that the South Korean right wing is currently able to muster is Ban Ki-moon, the immediate past Secretary General of the United Nations, in which post he excelled himself in his craven obeisance to US imperialist demands and interests. Whilst Ban presently commands only 20% support according to polls, the relatively progressive forces in South Korean politics will need to find ways to unite around a single candidate in order to avoid the prospect of the right regaining the initiative.
Continued mobilisation on the streets by workers, farmers and students will be necessary to help secure this as well as to prevent any attempts by the constitutional court to frustrate the popular will.