A. The Choi Soon-sil Scandal
Given how well the Choi Soon-sil scandal came to be known around the world (with a little help from yours truly,) only a brief summary of the scandal would suffice. Park Geun-hye turned out feeble in her mind, and outsourced much of her presidential duty to Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman Choi Tae-min who became close with Park because he claimed he could speak with Park’s dead mother. In addition to running the country on behalf of the president, Choi Soon-sil used her power as the shadow president to collect bribes, siphon government budget and dole out favors. (For additional detail, please refer to three massive posts that I previously wrote about the scandal: one two three.)
|In a photo circa 1979, Choi Soon-sil, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak are|
sitting in a row at a function. The hold that Choi has had over Park
was an open secret within South Korea's political circles for decades. (source)
The most remarkable thing about the Choi scandal was just how many people already knew about her. As early as 2007 when Park Geun-hye first ran for president, the US Ambassador for Korea noted in a diplomatic cable: “Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park's body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.” Facing off Park in the primaries, Lee Myung-bak made her association with the cult leader Choi Tae-min as a campaign attack point, noting how every organization in which Park Geun-hye was involved included relatives of Choi Tae-min.
There were even attempts to expose Choi Soon-sil in 2014, full two years before the scandal truly broke. Park Gwan-cheon, a presidential aide who was not connected to Choi, was conducting an internal investigation to check the rumors that someone with no official position with the Blue House was interfering with the presidential affairs. He discovered Choi and blew the whistle—to no avail, as the Blue House managed in short order to turn the issue into how the aide Park improperly leaked presidential records. During his investigation, the aide Park gave a statement to the prosecutors that would later become infamous: “Do you know the order of power in Korea? Choi Soon-sil is at the top, followed by [Choi’s husband] Jeong Yun-hoe, and the President is merely the third place.” The entire affair was like a strange and improbable gas leak: the stench was everywhere, and people kept lighting matches, but somehow, there was no fire.
The scandal did blow up in the end; it took a trigger that may as well have been carefully engineered to piss off the maximum number of Koreans. It was revealed that Choi’s daughter Jeong Yu-ra received a preferential treatment to gain admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University—and nothing upsets Koreans more than college admissions chicanery. As the Blue House scrambled for a response, the final straw came: cable TV network JTBC discovered Choi Soon-sil’s Galaxy Tab that contained confidential presidential documents with Choi’s mark-ups. The next day, Park Geun-hye gave a press conference, admitting she gave the documents to Choi for her review. Park’s approval plummeted to 5 percent, rendering any support for her to a statistical error.
Meanwhile, a crowd of more than a million holding candles began filling up the Gwanghwamun Square in Seoul.
(More after the jump.)
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B. The Candlelight Protests
South Korea’s Candlelight Protests of 2016-17 deserve to go down in the history of democracy as one of the greatest displays of civic activism. For 20 times from October 29, 2016 to March 11, 2017, a crowd of the size between hundreds of thousands to over two million gathered at the center of Seoul to protest the Park Geun-hye administration, in the bitter winter cold with temperatures falling to the negative. The protests then led to the impeachment and removal of Park, achieving a peaceful transfer of power in accordance with the rule of law—a true restoration of democracy, in which the governing system bowed to the popular sovereign in a clash against the ruler.
|Candlelight Protest, Nov. 12, 2016. Crowd estimated to be ~1 million.|
So many things could have gone wrong. The protests could have simply petered out after the first few weeks. Or worse, the protests could have radicalized and turned violent, which would have given the Park Geun-hye administration the excuse to declare a martial law and commit a massacre. (The military made plans for this exact scenario.) The impeachment vote, which required a significant number of defections from Park Geun-hye’s party, could have failed. But none of the above happened. Korean democracy’s path of avoiding disaster was the narrowest one—yet Koreans managed to walk straight on it, making the correct move at each turn. Somehow, millions of people made the correct strategic decision at every important moment without anyone commanding them. I’m not sure if something like the Candlelight saga of 2016-17 could ever occur again in Korea, much less in other countries.
How did it happen? A major factor was the fact that Seoul's mayor was the liberal heavyweight Park Won-soon, who ensured the Gwanghwamun Square was available for the public and restrained the police from overreacting. (Recall: winning elections at every level matters.) Another factor was the presence of the activists who were able to put together massive protests on notice. A collection of over a hundred civic organizations and labor unions took turns each week, setting up the stage and the sound system, handing out candles and signs, directing traffic and collecting donations. A team of volunteer attorneys ensured the police honored the protest permits that allowed the protesters to march right up to the Blue House. Volunteer app developers created the Candlelight Protests app that included helpful directions such as finding the nearest restroom.
It also helped that the Candlelight Protests were very much a middle-class phenomenon. They were not a demonstration led by brash young radicals. Rather, there was a relatively even distribution of protesters in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, with the age cohort attendance dropping only with people in their 60s and older. Many of the protesters were white collar professionals with college and graduate degrees. A significant portion of them, in fact, previously supported Park Geun-hye. One survey showed over 17% of self-identified conservatives participated in the Candlelight Protests.
These demographic features allowed the Candlelight protesters to act with discipline without degenerating into mindless violence. Indeed, the Candlelight protesters enforced peace strictly and almost militantly, drawing jeers from the radical leftists that the protesters were teacher’s pets, trying to appeal their harmlessness to the police and the conservative media. But in a number of ways, the protesters were correct. By remaining peaceful, the Candlelight Protests placed an enormous pressure on the legislature to remove Park Geun-hye. In addition, violence and chaos was exactly what Park Geun-hye’s generals wanted, as they had detailed plans to roll tanks into Seoul, declare martial law and arrest opposition politicians just as soon as the protests turned violent. By exercising an incredible degree of self-restraint, the Candlelight protesters avoided the re-enactment of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
|Diagram of the movement of troops in case of a martial law,|
as planned by the Defense Security Command. Note the movement
of troops away from the DMZ and into the mainland, opening up
Seoul for a potential invasion from North Korea. Based on this plan,
Seoul would have had 200 tanks, 550 armored cars, 4,800 troops
and 1,400 paratroopers to crack down the Candlelight Protests. (source)
(Aside: On October 29, 2016, I wrote a post about the Choi Soon-sil scandal that concluded with these words: “I don't want to actually write out what Park Geun-hye might do, because the mere thought of them sends chills down my spine.” At the time, my fear that I did not dare articulate was that Park would declare martial law and shoot at the protesters. As it turned out, I was not very far off.)
The role of the Koreans in their 50s is particularly notable. These were the Koreans who were in their 20s in 1987, when the June Struggle—another massive popular demonstration—ended the murderous Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship and democratized South Korea. Thirty years later, this generation grew into Korea’s prosperous middle class, turning more conservative in terms of preferring stability and economic advancement. Not insignificant portion of this group voted for Park Geun-hye in 2012, when Park still had the pristine “Queen of Elections” image. But when the Choi Soon-sil scandal posed a clear possibility of the Park Geun-hye administration reverting to authoritarianism, Koreans in their 50s decisively changed course.
The importance of Koreans in their 50s also shows that the Candlelight Protests were about restoration rather than change. At the time when the protests were occurring in late 2016, there were hasty and early analysis trying to find parallels between the Candlelight Protests on one hand, and the Brexit referendum and the Trump election on the other hand. Not so: the main driver of the Candlelight Protesters were well-to-do white collar workers, not those disaffected by globalization. As I noted several times in this series, South Korea is a preview of what is to come.
C. The Impeachment
As amazing as the Candlelight Protests were, they are only half of the story. The no-less-amazing other half is how South Korea’s liberal legislators secured enough votes from conservatives to pass the impeachment motion. Here, too, the path was exceedingly narrow. Yet Korea’s liberals somehow made the correct choice each time, with impeccable timing that interacted closely with the strength of the Candlelight Protests.
|The Plenary Chamber, i.e. the main meeting hall of the National Assembly (source)|
To impeach the president, the National Assembly had to vote in favor by more than two-thirds. Following the April 2016 National Assembly elections, Park Geun-hye’s Saenuri Party was reduced to 122 seats out of 300. The liberal block, on the other hand, had 167 votes split into three parties: the Democratic Party had 123 seats, People’s Party 38 seats, and the Justice Party six seats. Even counting a handful of independent legislators who were more liberal-leaning, the math was clear: liberals needed more than 30 defections from the conservatives—a quarter of the Saenuri Party Assembly Members—to successfully impeach the president. The Democratic Party leadership pulled this off by gradually raising the temperature to a point where the wavering Saenuri Party legislators saw no other option but to impeach.
The Choi Soon-sil scandal, in fact, blew up in part because of the Democratic Party. For the 2016 Assembly election, the Democratic Party welcomed a key defector: Jo Eung-cheon, the former Blue House aide who (as Park Gwan-cheon's supervisor) oversaw the internal investigation on the mysterious personality who interfered with the presidential affairs without an official position. As with his colleague Park, Jo faced investigation and trial for leaking confidential documents. After he was acquitted, Jo joined the Democratic Party and won a seat in the National Assembly. With the information that Jo had collected on Choi Soon-sil, the Democratic Party began giving hints about Choi to the friendly press around late September.
A month later, JTBC discover Choi Soon-sil’s tablet computer, and the Candlelight Protests began. According to the Majority Leader Woo Sang-ho, the Democratic Party leadership consciously decided not to go straight for impeachment—if they did, the calculation went, it would provoke a visceral reaction from the conservatives, making it impossible for the persuadable Saenuri legislators to defect. To avoid the appearance of partisanship, Woo also asked Moon Jae-in, the public face of the party, to refrain from weighing in. Then the Democratic leadership approached Park Geun-hye with a compromise: take a step back as an informal matter, and let the liberal parties appoint the cabinet that would run the government until the next presidential election.
The Blue House refused the compromise on November 9, declaring the compromise is effectively a demand for resignation, and dared the liberals to impeach Park. (It was later revealed that Park Geun-hye was acting on a belief that no more than 25 Saenuri legislators would defect for an impeachment motion—an incorrect information that none of her cronies dared to correct.) In response to Park’s defiance, the size of the third Candlelight Protest held on November 12 climbed over a million people, more than tripling the size of the second protest. The Democrats began contacting moderate conservatives to explore the possibility of an impeachment. On November 20, the major liberal leaders including Moon Jae-in and the heads of the three left-of-center parties convened and agreed to pursue Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. From then on, the Democrats could only count votes to get over the two-thirds line. On November 26, the fifth Candlelight Protest attracted 1.9 million protesters. On November 30, the liberal block agreed to make the impeachment motion by December 2.
On November 29, Park Geun-hye played a gambit. In a statement, Park declared she would let the National Assembly decide how she would end her presidency. The statement caused the moderate conservatives to begin wavering away from the impeachment option. Instead, the moderate conservatives proposed yet another compromise: Park would resign in six months by April 2017, and the presidential election would be held in June 2017. The statement also caused a dissension among the liberals: some wanted to keep the schedule of impeaching by December 2, while others wanted to delay and make sure they had the wavering Saenuri votes. Finally on December 3, 171 members of the National Assembly—every legislator of the three liberal parties, plus six independents—moved to impeach the president. The reaction by the Candlelight Protesters was explosive. On the same day when the impeachment motion was made, 2.3 million protesters attended the sixth Candlelight Protest, sending a clear signal to the National Assembly: Park Geun-hye must go.
South Korea’s democracy stood on a brink. On the day before the vote, the liberals legislators drew a line in the sand: they resolved to all resign from the National Assembly if the impeachment vote failed. Unbeknownst to most Koreans, the military was also gearing up for a martial law if the impeachment vote failed, as they expected the Candlelight Protests would finally get violent.
|Speaker of the Assembly Jeong Se-gyun announces the passage of the impeachment motion,|
by the vote of 234 to 56. (source)
On December 9, the National Assembly voted on the impeachment motion, which alleged nine counts of violations against Korea’s Constitution and statutes. Out of the 300 members, 299 cast a vote in a no-name basis. The final tally was: 234 votes in favor, 56 against, seven invalid votes, and two abstain. In the end, 63 conservative legislators—more than half of the whole party—crossed over to impeach Park Geun-hye.
D. The Fall of Park Geun-hye
Park Geun-hye’s authority as the president was suspended as soon as the National Assembly passed the impeachment motion on December 9. (Prime Minister Hwang Gyo-an stepped in as the acting president.) Under the constitutional procedure, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea had to conduct the impeachment hearing. To remove the president from office, six out of the nine justices of the Constitutional Court had to rule in favor of removal.
|A Taegeukgi protester wears a sign: "Rise Up, Military"|
and "Martial Law is the Answer". (source)
Park Geun-hye and her supporters did not wait quietly for the Constitutional Court’s ruling. Breaking from her usual habit, Park gave press conferences and even took questions from the media, claiming her innocence in the characteristically rambling manner. Meanwhile, the conservative groups began organizing their own counter-protests. The participants of these protests—mostly older people in their 60s and 70s, many of whom were brought up to Seoul from rural areas—came to be known as the Taegeukgi Troops, as the they waved the South Korean taegeukgi flag. While outnumbered by the Candlelight Protesters, the Taegeukgi protests were also enormous: their largest demonstration on March 1, 2017 reached nearly 900,000 in size. Their message was overtly hostile: the speakers for the protest promised “blood on the pavement,” and threatened “we will not guarantee the safety” of the Constitutional Court justices if they voted to remove the president. The protesters waved signs that said DECLARE MARTIAL LAW and RISE UP, MILITARY.
The Constitutional Court began the hearing on December 22. Park Geun-hye’s attorneys—when they were not engaged in antics like waving the Korean flag in the courtroom—mostly argued the impeachment did not follow lawful procedure. It was not an unreasonable argument; because impeachment is such a rare event, there was little precedent for a number of procedural matters, such as how specific the charging instrument must be, whether the National Assembly had to vote on each charge separately, whether the full Constitutional Court was required (the term for one of the justices ended in January, leaving the court with eight justices,) and so on. The final oral argument was held on February 27, 2017. The justices would have a little more than a week to deliberate.
On March 10, 2017, the eight justices convened to issue their judgment. Lee Jeong-mi, the acting Chief Justice, read the entire opinion from the bench. The opinion began with a brief preliminary statement, giving recognition to the importance of the moment. Then the opinion addressed Park Geun-hye’s argument that the impeachment process was defective—and rejected the argument. Then, the merits. The impeachment motion charged Park with five counts of violating the constitution and four counts of violating statutes, but in practicality there were four charges: (1) Park abused her authority by firing government officials who sought to uncover Choi Soon-sil; (2) Park abused her authority by applying pressure to the media that sought to uncover Choi; (3) Park neglected her duties by failing to act during the Sewol Ferry disaster, and; (4) Park abused her authority by assisting Choi Soon-sil’s profiteering.
|Acting Chief Justice Lee Jeong-mi reads the opinion on Park Geun-hye's impeachment|
The opinion went through each argument in turn. The court found there was not enough evidence that Park directed the firing of the government officials. The court also found there was not enough evidence that Park applied pressure on the media as well. Then the court held the president’s actions during the Sewol Ferry disaster was political and was not a matter for the court to decide.
Everyone drew a breath.
The court then began a long recital of Choi Soon-sil’s corruption: how she received confidential government documents, and how she established shell foundations and compelled companies to pay into them, doling out favors in return. Then: “The action by the respondent is an abuse of the president’s stature and authority for Choi’s profit; it cannot be considered a fair administration of the duties of the office, and violates the constitution, the National Public Officials Act and Public Official Ethics Act. … As the respondent’s violation of the law significantly and negatively impacts and influences the constitutional order, the gains of upholding the constitution by removing the respondent from her office is overwhelmingly great. Accordingly, by unanimous opinion of all justices, the court hereby issues the order:
The respondent, President Park Geun-hye, is removed from the office.”
By the time the Constitutional Court announced its decision, the Taegeukgi Troops were in the middle of a continuous four day-long protest. When the news of Park Geun-hye’s removal broke, the crowd became agitated. Three men, aged 73, 72 and 66, collapsed and died from heart attack. One more old man, aged 72, died when a loudspeaker shaken by the crowd fell on his head.
Park Geun-hye was certain she would prevail; she made no preparation to leave the Blue House. Reportedly, the Blue House kitchen had prepared a five-story cake to celebrate. She did not even believe the news reports that announced her removal from the office, and instead called her staff to confirm. She would stay in the Blue House for two more nights after the Constitutional Court’s decision, ostensibly because she was not prepared to leave. With hindsight, Park Geun-hye may have been holding out hope that her generals would come to her rescue.
No such help came. Park Geun-hye, now an ex-president, returned to her old home in the wealthy part of Seoul on March 12. She reportedly came to an empty house, as Choi Soon-sil stole all her furniture.
In the snap election held in May 9, 2017, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party won the presidency by the largest margin of victory in South Korean history.
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