Let’s backtrack. Friday’s decision by the Constitutional Court has been greeted with explosions of joy and thunderstorms of back slaps. The court ruling was the culmination of people-power protests that were notable both for their extreme civility and their extraordinary size. The result looks like a boost for democracy, a system that pushes power down to the people.
So forgive me for sounding like a curmudgeon if I point to some downsides. The mass mobilization of anti-Park protesters sparked the (belated) mobilization of fiercely partisan pro-Park protesters. Now, Korea is divided along broad political/demographic lines, highly energized and highly mobilized. Heading into an election campaign, this combination could prove combustible.
And if we step back and peruse the big picture, the impeachment of Park is not as dramatic a development for Korean democracy it may appear to be. In fact, it looks more like the natural progression of a long-term trend.
How so? Every single late-term president of Korea is disempowered in the “lame duck” period of his/her administration, when the public turns against him/her. Subsequently, every single post-term Korean president – and/or his/her family – faces legal entanglements.
Seen through this prism, the fact that Park was disempowered and legally embattled in the last ten months of her term in office is merely an intensification of this long-term paradigm; the five-month drama of “Choigate” simply accelerated her departure and punishment.
This is troubling. As I pointed out in this column in 2012, the presidency is the worst job in Korea. The record of presidents’ unhappy endings suggests that the position is either attracting the wrong people or corrupting the right people. Alternatively, it suggests that Koreans’ expectations of their presidents are unrealistic, or that public patience for a five-year term is lacking.
Still, I think it is an overall plus that Korean presidents are held to account. Conversely, the most entrenched elites in Korean society are not.
Presidents are not the most powerful people in the republic, I would argue; they are restrained by checks and balances, and restricted to a single term.
The most powerful people are those who wield the largest sums (“money is power”). The leadership of this shadowy elite is legally unassailable, inherited within the family and unlimited in term.
I speak of course, of chaebol “royal families.” Even when convicted in scandals worth far more than the sums involved in “Choigate,” they face light or suspended sentences and receive pardons and/or early releases from jail. Unlike presidents, who depart for good, they customarily return to head their corporations.
The leading chaebol prince is currently behind bars – but on past form, it seems unlikely he will stay long, or that he will be prevented from returning to head the nation’s largest company. That corporate, though founded by his grandfather, is publically listed, with a considerable portion of shares owned by the National Pension Service – i.e. the Korean people.
For “Hell Joseon” to be a fair society, justice must apply to all. Likewise, all leaders must be accountable – be they from politics or business. Will the public be satiated with the downfall of Park and crony Choi Soon-sil? Or will their fury extend to related parties?
The Constitutional Court’s key ruling was that Park enabled Choi to interfere in state affairs and empowered her relations with big business. The latter finding implicates chaebol in the impeachment scandal, for although the court did not mention it (which may be telling) – corruption is a two-way street. And chaebols’ records on it are long.
The leading politician in the land has been harshly sanctioned – but punishment for presidents is commonplace. Punishment for chaebol royalty is not. Will this change?
If so, then Choigate could be a truly transformative landmark for Korea, rather than merely an acceleration of a long-term trend of presidential disgraces. If not, the changes that many have been exuberantly extolling since the impeachment may prove overstated.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. Reach him at email@example.com.