Tag Archives: President Park Geun-hye

South Korea – Collective-Action and President Park’s Impeachment: Did Corruption Galvanize Protestors?

President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on December 9, 2016, when the South Korean legislature voted 234 to 56 (with two abstentions and seven invalid votes) to impeach the president – following consecutive weekends of large-scale protests against her – seemed nothing short of stunning. Here is an executive who has consistently weathered criticisms of her unconsultative style and recurring influence-peddling scandals to remain the Queen of Elections and assert her priorities over the opposition and even at the expense of her ruling Saenuri Party.[i] In fact, President Park was instrumental in the candidate-nomination debacle that led to departures of high-profile senior party-members and accounted in part for the Saenuri Party’s resounding defeat in the 2016 general elections. That the President managed to keep the now-minority party in government following the drubbing is instructive. Indeed, even following the President’s impeachment, Park loyalists retained leadership control of the ruling Saenuri Party (renamed since as the Liberty Korea Party); as a result, non-Park legislators and members left the party – some would say, again – to form the conservative Bareun Party. Given President Park’s apparent staying power, how did impeachment happen?

Public activism is the mainstay that underpins the resolve to bring about the President’s impeachment. The weekly protests that began in October and, at various times, exceeded two million, likely played a key role in bringing together the fractured opposition in the legislature to pull off the impeachment. It should be noted that the Park government had faced public protests previously, the most consistent being the Sewol protests to demand an independent investigative counsel for clear resolution of the tragedy in April 2014. What is different this time around is the size of the public protests: these are some of the largest protests to hit the country in 30 years, even larger than the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1987.

That large public protests are part of the knockout punch on a regime is not surprising: Tucker (2007) noted that electoral fraud led citizens to overcome collective action problems and form the Colored Revolutions protests that revolutionized politics in Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, and Kyrgyzstan.[ii] What other issues galvanize public protests? My own work on anti-corruption efforts show that government corruption may have such a galvanizing effect: in particular, experiment results show that Korean citizens are willing to join others to demand government accountability for corruption, even when they suffer no losses through the corrupt actions, if  expect others to pursue that course of action.[iii]

President Park’s fall from grace, then, may lie less in her susceptibility to the influences of her confidante, Choi Soo-sil, and more with her alleged role in aiding bribery and corruption from Korean conglomerates to said confidante. The President and her lawyers have been stalling and stonewalling the special investigation counsel as well as the Constitutional Court, in an effort to delay the Court’s decision. Still, the Constitutional Court has made clear that it will decide by March 10, lending to speculations that the collective protests have had an impact even on the mostly-conservative court. With the rise of popular authoritarianism across the globe, it may well be useful to uncover other issues that galvanize citizens and lead to demands for government accountability.



[i] O. Fiona Yap, 2016. “South Korea in 2015: Battling to Set the Stage for Elections.” Asian Survey vol 56 no 1: 78-86

[ii] Joshua Tucker. 2007. “Enough! Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions.” Perspectives on Politics vol 5 no 3: 535-551

[iii] O. Fiona Yap. 2016. “How do South Koreans Respond to Government Corruption? Evidence from Experiments.” Korea Observer vol 47 no 2: 363-386




South Korea – Presidential powers amid opposition boycotts

President Park Geun-hye may have her work cut out for her: the failure of the government to pass a legislative bill for three months between September and December, culminating in the delayed passage of the budget bill for the 11th consecutive year, highlights the effectiveness of the opposition to challenge and even upend the government’s agenda.

The main opposition party – the Democratic Party – had boycotted parliamentary proceedings for 101 days since September over the role of the National Intelligence Service in the 2012 presidential elections. The DP returned briefly to the legislature in November but has continued to periodically boycott the Assembly.

President Park’s response has been two-fold. On the one hand, her government has extended conciliatory gestures towards the opposition. Thus, for instance, the ruling Saenuri party has agreed to opposition demands to install special committees to reform the National Intelligence Service and local elections respectively, in order to return the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, to parliamentary proceedings and out of its boycott of the legislature. The President’s budgetary speech to the National Assembly in November – decked in blue, the Blue House color and also the main opposition party’s official color – also promised compromise with the opposition.

On the other hand, the President has pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition while her government is looking for ways to temper the National Assembly Advancement law. The Assembly Advancement Law, approved in 2012 and operative this year, requires a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and limits the Assembly Speaker’s ability to bring a bill to passage to three situations: national disasters, wartime conditions, or with agreement between the ruling and opposition parties. While this has limited the ability of the ruling party to bulldoze the opposition – and, consequently, reduced the physical altercations in the parliament that often followed ruling-opposition party clashes over legislative railroading – the ruling party has also been stymied in its efforts to legislate, as the no-legislation-in-3-months condition illustrates.

If approval ratings provide any indication, President Park’s mixed approach is the way to go. In particular, approval ratings taken a week after the failed three-way talks with leaders of ruling and opposition parties showed the President with over 60 percent approval, and with more respondents blaming the opposition for the legislative stalemate than the President or the President’s party.

The foreign press was quick to label President Park as Korea’s Iron Lady when she was elected in 2012. Perhaps President Park’s two-fold approach is better captured by the Asian open-hand-over-closed-fist approach: trained and able to fight but would prefer not to.