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An End to South Korean Corruption?

By Guest Writer Soye Bae '18

· Guest Writer

On March 10, the Constitutional Court of South Korea decided to impeach President Park Geun-hye. Three months since her presidential powers were suspended by overwhelming legislative support, Park was removed. Acting Chief Justice Jung-Mi Lee declared that the court considered Ms. Park’s actions “intolerable for the sake of protecting the Constitution” and that “the benefits of removing the defendant are severely larger than otherwise”, and therefore the eight justices unanimously agreed to impeach the President. By law, a presidential election must be held within sixty days, and has been scheduled for May 9th; Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn will be in charge of the administration during the interim.

Park is the first president in South Korea’s history that has been impeached. Within the short history of democracy in the country, the public has been very indifferent to domestic politics. Yet, public opinion played a huge role in the process of impeachment. Since the numerous incidents of abuse of power by the President and her confidante Choi Soon-sil were reported to the public, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans have participated in candlelight rallies, peacefully pushing for the impeachment of Park. With the public’s opinion playing a huge role in Park’s impeachment, the incident is a huge turning point for the nation’s democracy. Although the South Korean government divides its powers among the legislative, administrative, and judiciary, historically, the administrative branch led by the president has been overtly stronger than the legislature or the judiciary. The police and military are all under the control of the president, and Korean presidents often exploited such forces to pressure other government branches. Moreover, Park, often nicknamed as the “political princess,” has been the icon of the conservative party and cliques because she is the daughter of Park Jung-hee, the dictatorial ruler of South Korea from 1961 to 1979. Her father is known for his economic policies that dramatically developed Korea’s economy, yet only by pushing anti-labor policies and distributing privileges to family-owned conglomerates. These links between the politicians and conglomerates have been plentiful ever since, and many view Park’s impeachment as the sign of the beginning of the breakdown of this  longstanding corruption. The corruption between large corporations and government has created public distrust and indifference to domestic politics in Korea, which has made it easier for such corrupt relationships to continue. Thus, support for effective economic policies antithetical to the conglomerates, yet also encourage growth, is one of the most decisive factors in the upcoming presidential election. South Korean constituents also expect the new government to actively reflect public opinion since the Park administration has been notorious for neglecting public sentiment.

After her removal, Park left the presidential Blue House. On March 30, she was arrested and sent to Seoul Detention Center. Park is the third former president in Korean history to be arrested. She has been charged with thirteen felonies, including corruption, accepting bribes, abuse of power, and leaking confidential state secrets to her confidante Choi, especially after a Korean broadcasting center JTBC found a tablet PC that belonged to Choi in which they found more than two hundred confidential state secrets, including an official presidential speech.  The public is highly conscious that Choi interfered with numerous state matters, such as personnel appointment and domestic economic policies with the information Park leaked. Park also pressured several companies to donate to Choi’s foundation, which Choi personally used. Both Park and Choi constantly denied these charges during the investigation. Judge Kang Bu-young, who issued the warrant for Park’s arrest, said that he “recognizes the necessity and rationality” for Park’s arrest because he believes that Park and her confederates seek to destroy the evidence otherwise. De facto chief of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, has already been jailed for offering bribes of over twenty-five million dollars to Park and Choi under the condition that Park, with her presidential power, support Lee’s succession in the company.  The prosecution assumes that the evidence from this investigation will also be used against Park and Choi in their trial. Samsung, the largest corporation in the nation, plays a huge role in the national economy, and many are concerned that if Samsung was charged, then other conglomerates may also be investigated, and the economy will thereby suffer.  However, to eradicate corruption, the conglomerates must be examined, investigated, and punished for corruption.

The downfall of the Park administration supposedly represents the collapse of the corruption between politicians and conglomerates. A common sentiment in Korea is that the economy of the nation had developed so dramatically that advances in liberal social and political traditions could not keep up. The nation now faces a turning point that can lead to progress of democracy and innovation.  

Image from Wikimedia.

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