|Candlelight Protest, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd estimated to be ~1 million.|
The impeachment and removal of former president Park Geun-hye is a stunning triumph of democracy: an illiberal and anti-democratic president is taken down peacefully, in an orderly manner, pursuant to the rule of law. And for the most part, it has been received as such. Yet there have been a small group of critics who insist on spitting on this achievement.
Now, I respect differences in opinion if the differing opinion derives from a solid understanding of facts on the ground. But no—not these people. They uniformly advance two bits of criticism: (1) the impeachment process ignored proper procedure, because; (2) the Korean public formed a mob that intimidated the politicians and overrode the democratic process. These two arguments only reveal their proponents’ ignorance of Korea’s constitutional structure, and the actual events on the ground during the 17 weeks of candlelight protests.
The two most prominent examples of these critics are Michael Breen and Euny Hong, who make their case in a similar manner. Breen, on the Atlantic, opened by questioning the impeachment procedure:
Acting Chief Justice Lee Jung Mi said, her court building ringed by riot police behind a wall of police buses that held back supporters of the embattled president. “Her violations of the Constitution and the law are a betrayal of the people’s trust and cannot be tolerated.”
If this seems a little vague, it gets more so. Hearings by the court, another series of proceedings by the National Assembly that impeached her, and a 70-day investigation by a special prosecutor, have determined that Choi Soon Sil was indeed sent presidential speeches to edit. But none of these bodies appears to have established what makes this an impeachable offense.
A New Test for South Korea's Young Democracy [The Atlantic]
Similarly, Euny Hong wrote:
By US legal standards, Park's impeachment is peculiar in that she was ousted before even being fully investigated. Even the special prosecutors making the case against Park reportedly claimed they didn't have time to complete the inquiry and were denied an extension. (…) Though a Korean prosecutor alleged that Park had knowledge of this—and she may well have—what is significant is that the impeachment was pushed through before the conclusion of the investigation.
Both of these arguments are simply ignorant about what actually happened as a matter of law. Breen’s claim that the pronouncement by Acting Chief Justice Lee was “vague” is pure nonsense, when the quoted sentence comes at the end of a rigorously written court opinion. If one bothered to read the entire impeachment opinion—which I translated in this post, by the way—it is impossible for one to conclude that the Constitutional Court have not “established what makes this an impeachable offense.” The Constitutional Court considered four arguments in favor of removal, and found three—abuse of authority of appoint public official, infringement of freedom of press, and violation of the duty to exercise due diligence as a public official—were not enough to support removal. The court, however, found Park’s use of presidential power to assist Choi Soon-sil’s private profiteering does not only violate the constitution and the law, but also seriously enough such that removal from office is warranted. All of this is clearly spelled out in the opinion; none of this is vague.
(More after the jump.)
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Hong’s argument is even stupider—in fact, it is one of those sentences that are so stupid that you would be at a loss figuring out just where to start. (“By U.S. legal standards”? Why would U.S. legal standards even come into play when the impeachment is in Korea?) By referring to how the special prosecutor could not “complete the inquiry,” Hong is displaying a total ignorance in how the impeachment process under the Korean constitution works—because the special prosecutor is not the one who conducts the investigation for an impeachment trial.
The investigation and fact-finding authority for an impeachment trial belongs to only one body: the Constitutional Court. This makes perfect sense under Korea’s constitutional structure. Although it is called a “court,” the Constitutional Court is not a part of the judiciary under Korea’s constitution. Rather, it is a constitutional council that sits above the three branches of the government—executive, legislative and judiciary. Each of the three branches of the government appoints three justices to the Constitutional Court, in a manner that symbolizes the Constitutional Court’s role as the final arbiter of different branches. This is why the Constitutional Court runs the impeachment trial, because an impeachment is a dispute between the legislature and the executive.
Under Korean law, a special prosecutor is an investigator for a criminal trial, not an impeachment trial. A special prosecutor may be appointed when the ordinary prosecutor may be conflicted from conducting a proper investigation. In other words, a special prosecutor is an ad hoc member of the executive branch, because a prosecutor is a part of the executive branch. So it would make no sense for the Constitutional Court to rely on the special prosecutor to investigate for the impeachment trial—because it would mean that the subordinate part of the government (i.e. the executive) is wielding the power of the superior part of the government (i.e. Constitutional Court.) There is no reason for the Constitutional Court to wait for the executive branch before ruling on an impeachment trial. You would understand this if you spent just a few hours studying Korea’s constitutional structure.
Having convinced themselves of this stupidity, both Breen and Hong proceed to the next garbage argument: that Korea’s protesters were a mob that demanded this (imaginary) deviation from proper procedure. Breen again:
As protests swelled in downtown Seoul last fall, and millions held candles in the street and dads hoisted their kids atop their shoulders to get a better view of history in the making, the establishment knew what it had to do. Prosecutors had to find a reason to put Park and others behind bars, politicians had to find the pretext to impeach, and, yes, the Constitutional Court had to find the justification to uphold the impeachment.
Hong is similar:
Three deaths and 30-odd serious injuries were reported as having arisen from post-impeachment protests, but had Park not been impeached, a revolution with far more fatalities would have been inevitable. Her removal was probably the only outcome the Korean people would accept, and the Korean senate and courts knew that.
These arguments are not just stupid; by claiming (with no basis) that the Constitutional Court worked backwards to find some justification under mob pressure, they are positively insulting.
Let’s quickly go over the stupidity first. It is laugh-out-loud hilarious that Euny Hong wrote the words “the Korean senate,” and the CNN editor let those words slide. Korea’s legislature is called the National Assembly. You can find this information in five seconds on Google. (Here, I even did the search for you.) Someone who cannot be bothered to look up the proper name for a governmental branch should not be in the business of writing political takes; the editor who let this laziness slide deserves to be fired.
Now, the insult. It is slanderous to imply that Korea’s candlelight protesters were anything like a mob. Here is some perspective. The Women’s March was a big deal in the U.S. recently. The largest Women’s March was in Washington D.C., with estimated 500,000 people in attendance. Now compare: the largest candlelight protest calling for Park Geun-hye’s impeachment was estimated to be 2.3 million. The candlelight protests went on for 17 consecutive weeks, and each protest drew a rough average of a million people. Can you imagine the United States being able to hold this kind of a protest—double the size of D.C. Women’s March for 17 weeks—without breaking into violence? Heck, is there any country in the world other than South Korea that can pull this off?
Really, show me where the mob was, because a proper mob made up of a million people would not have shown up 17 times. It would have shown up once, smashed everything on its way to the Blue House, and dragged Park Geun-hye to be hung in the middle of Seoul’s City Hall Square. What happened is the opposite of that. In the frigid winter cold, up to two million people gathered, raised their candles, sang, chanted—then cleaned up and went home. While clearly signaling their desire as citizens and voters, the candlelight protesters patiently waited for the democratic institutions do their jobs in accordance with the rule of law. They waited the National Assembly to impeach the president, and the Constitutional Court to lawfully remove the president from the office. What kind of a mob waits for three months for the representative democracy to take its course?
It is absurd to think that after 17 weeks of peaceful protests, the candlelight protests would have suddenly turned violent had the National Assembly failed to impeach, or the Constitutional Court failed to rule in their favor. Actually watching the protest just once would have dispelled that silly notion. The main group of protesters were not the hot-blooded youngsters; they were middle-class professionals, working in the skyscrapers around the City Hall Plaza. Many of them brought their young children, showing them democracy in action. Middle class families with children are not the types of people who are getting ready to throw down when things don’t go their way.
The organizers of the protests also obsessively ensured that the passion of the protest would not spill over into violence. For example, when they met police buses serving as a blockade, the protesters did not attack the bus; instead, they covered the buses with flower-shaped stickers that the organizers handed out, until the buses became beautiful mounds of flowers. Even more impressive—the organizers designed the stickers with Post-It Note-like adhesives, so that the buses would be cleaned up after each protest. It is simply not the case that this was a group of people gearing up for a street fight. (Given this demonstrated effort for non-violence, it is particularly insulting that Euny Hong would use the casualties from post-impeachment, pro-Park riots as some kind of evidence for the inevitable mob violence to come.)
Let us be straightforward about what drives this kind of faulty analysis. It is bigotry, orientalism, culturalism run amok. It is the unjustified sense of sneering superiority that says liberal democracy for me, but not for thee. One can see this plainly from the essentialist bullshit about Koreans with which both Breen and Hong fill their pages—about how “[f]or centuries, they endured the rigors of a caste system” or Korea is about “ruling by the people’s emotions”. In their minds, Koreans are too backwards, primitive and beholden to their old culture to have a proper democracy. (Hong’s non-sequitur about “by U.S. legal standards,” in this sense, is quite telling.) In fact, it is not entirely clear how they expect a proper democracy to behave in a situation like this. Is a liberal democracy supposed to stand idly by, while its elected officials use their power to enrich their friends?
Facing the president who so grossly privatized power for the sake of profiteering, Korea’s electorate spurred the National Assembly into taking the precise constitutional remedy designed for such a situation: impeachment. Then, once the ball was with the Constitutional Court, Korea’s electorate made clear where the nation’s constitutional conscience lay. All of this was achieved in a peaceful and orderly manner over the course of three months, by millions of people who braved the cold, by thousands of organizers who obsessively maintained order. Few other countries can even imagine doing something like this, much less actually pull it off.
In other words, in removing Park Geun-hye from office, South Korea delivered the best example of responding to democracy’s institutional failure that is humanly attainable. It is a shining achievement that firmly established Korea as the finest democracy in Asia, and among the foremost in the world. And only the latent bigotry that occupies the minds of the likes of Michael Breen and Euny Hong would cloud one’s eyes from seeing the brilliance of this victory.
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