On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea unanimously upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Park, the first female president elected in the country, has become the first president to be ousted out of office by impeachment since democratization in 1987. The former President is now a named suspect in a criminal investigation of bribery and abuse of power. The fall from grace for Park is particularly poignant: until the Choi scandal, Park seemed to buck the trend of failing performance approvals that had afflicted her predecessors. In particular, presidents in Korea since democratization have generally entered office with high approvals but would suffer low approvals by mid-term onwards, so that they are typically characterized as “limping” out of office by the end of their respective terms. In contrast, notwithstanding recurring influence-peddling scandals among her key aides and criticisms of her unconsultative style, until the general elections in April 2016, Park was consistently able to revive falling approvals to parlay support for her into election wins for her party. Consequently, more than other presidents since 1987, Park, as “Queen of Elections,” encapsulated the “imperial president” in South Korea, i.e., the executive who successfully overrides the checks and balances by the other branches of government.[i] How that imperialism worked in practice, particularly for a single, five-year term-limited executive office, makes for interesting study.
Early life in Politics
Most are aware that Park is the eldest daughter of former strongman president Park Chung-hee, whom many Koreans credit as instrumental for putting the Korean economy on the global map. The consecutive assassinations of both parents in the 1970s left Park and her siblings socially and politically isolated for almost two decades. That changed in 1998, when Park successfully contested a legislative by-election for the Daegu seat. In 2004, Park became chair of the Grand National Party (GNP, the forerunner of the current Liberty Korea Party and its predecessor, the Saenuri Party); in that role, she eked out a 121-seat win for the scandal-hit, publicly-assailed GNP. That success cemented Park’s position as a key player in the GNP; still, she would not win the party’s nomination until 2012. That year, running on a platform of economic democracy that also championed candidate-nomination reforms to combat political corruption and transparency for accountability, Park beat out the liberal Minjoo Party’s candidate, Moon Jae-in, for the presidential office.
The imperial presidency was in evidence in Park’s first year in office: her government filed a motion to dissolve the minority party, the Unified Progressive Party, with the Constitutional Court (granted in 2014) for ties with North Korea. Meanwhile, the government resisted, and then reportedly pressured, independent investigators on the role of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) in the 2012 elections. When the main opposition Minjoo Party’s boycott of parliamentary proceedings for 101 consecutive days over the NIS role led to a legislative impasse, the Park government moved to temper the National Assembly Advancement law that required a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition. On February 9, 2015, an appeals court convicted the former NIS chief for meddling in the 2012 elections
Park’s second year in office witnessed the Sewol tragedy that saw more than 300 dead or missing, mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju. As President, Park’s failure to take responsibility and apologize for her government’s inadequate responses – she delivered the first official apology 13 days after the incident – was topped by her resistance to a full, independent investigation of the incident.[ii] The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House over the Sewol disaster are the groundswell of the anti-Park rallies in 2016.
Park’s third and fourth years were marked by battles to shield her aides from the political fallout of the “door-knob” scandals over access to the president, and clashes within her party and with the opposition over candidate nominations and reform of that process. In these, Park wielded her presidential powers comfortably: she vetoed a parliamentary bill on the National Assembly Act that would allow legislators to demand changes to executive legislation in 2015, and contemplated another veto in 2016 to the revised Act that would allow parliamentary committees to call for public hearings on bills. Her government also pushed through with the state text-books policy, which many critics argued whitewashed pro-Japanese activities during the colonial era as well as the country’s experience with military dictatorship. And, her negotiated agreement with Japan over the comfort women issue drew ire for its lack of consultation and rash conclusion. Through these endeavours, Park consistently stared down efforts by the legislature or within her party to wrestle the agenda away from her office, threatening to leave the party when key party members, such as former party chair Kim Moo-sung or former floor leader Yoo Seung-min, sought to take the party in a different direction.[iii]
The Fall of the Imperial President
But Park overshot herself on the candidate nomination for the 2016 general elections: her resistance on open party primaries, and then subsequent interference in the nomination process, led to the lost of the party as majority in the legislature. The outcome is particularly damning because, at the beginning of 2016, the ruling party looked set to coast to a 180-seat majority win for the ruling party that would allow it to push its agenda and eliminate need for compromise. But, the open party bickering over candidate-nominations, with senior party members rebuffed in favour of pro-Park candidates, led several to leave the party and run as independents. In the April general elections, the ruling party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory: it not only lost its majority in the legislature but also became the second largest party, after the opposition Minjoo Party. The scope of the imperial president is probably most telling in the aftermath of the election drubbing: while Park pledged to “humbly accept” the people’s will, she rejected a coalition with other parties, or even a reshuffle of the government.
In the end, the imperial president was brought down by the consistent, weekly rallies that began in October 2016 and surged to a high of 2 million. These are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, this may well be the most newsworthy aspect of the imperial president.
[i] Arthur Schlesinger, 1973. The Imperial President. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin