Monday, December 12, 2016

Impeachment: Where does Korea Go from Here?

Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announcing the passage of the bill to impeach the president.

After a month of trudging through shitty political news, things are finally looking up in Korea. On Friday, the National Assembly passed the bill to impeach President Park Geun-hye, by the vote of 234 to 56. 

Although the many crimes of Park Geun-hye through her confidant have shocked the world, it was not a sure thing that the National Assembly would actually impeach the president. About a month ago when I wrote this post, I was not entirely optimistic about the chances for impeachment. The National Assembly has 300 elected legislators, and the impeachment bill required at least 200 votes to pass. In the National Assembly, Park Geun-hye's Saenuri Party has 129 seats--which means there had to be at least 29 defections from the president's own party for the impeachment to succeed. In the days leading up to the vote, tensions were high. As embattled as the president was, was there really going to be enough votes to bring her down? Failed impeachment vote was a real possibility--in which case, everyone would be at a loss.

Naturally, there was a huge sigh of relief when Jeong Se-gyun, chairman of the National Assembly, announced the vote tally: 234 votes in favor of impeachment, an overwhelming victory.* The margin of victory means at least 63 members of Park Geun-hye's own party--nearly half of its Assembly representatives--voted to impeach the president. That Korea's conservatives so completely turned on their own president is the most interesting part of this ongoing political saga. (I will expand on this point in the next upcoming post.)

But this is hardly a done deal. Americans who lived through the Bill Clinton era may find this phrase familiar: impeachment is a trial, not removal from the office. Same is true with Korea. Functionally speaking, impeachment only means that the National Assembly filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court of Korea. The court must try the case and find that the president seriously violated the constitution or statutes, before she is actually removed from the office.

Because my day job is being a lawyer, it is highly interesting for me to see the extent to which the impeachment trial proceeds just like any other litigation. After the impeachment bill passed, the case is docketed with the court and is assigned a case number. The president must be served with process--as if she needs the notice that the National Assembly decided to impeach her! Just imagine being the process server for this case. Yes, a process server personally makes the service, even in impeachment. What would go through your mind as you deliver the summons to the presidential residence? Would you require a security detail, just in case some deranged lunatic tried to intercept your delivery?

The responsive pleading by the president, which is guaranteed to be a riveting read, is due this coming Friday, December 16. The court is yet to schedule the dates for hearings, but there will almost certainly be several rounds of hearing. Last time when the Constitutional Court heard an impeachment case, involving then-President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the court held seven rounds of hearing before dismissing the case. If we are lucky, we may get the first round of hearing before the end of the year.** By law, the Constitutional Court must issue a decision within 180 days after the case was filed. The court took 62 days in Roh's impeachment, but it is almost certain that the court will take longer in Park Geun-hye's case as it is more complex than Roh's case.

A little bit about Korea's Constitutional Court, which is a unique institution even in the global context. Although it is called a "court," Constitutional Court is not a part of Korea's judiciary. It is a constitutional body that exists outside of the executive, legislative and judicial branches, deciding only the cases that directly implicate the constitution. This is reflected in the manner in which the court's justices are appointed. The Constitutional Court has a total of nine justices with staggering six-year terms. Each branch of the government--the president, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court--nominates three justices. They are appointed after undergoing a National Assembly hearing.

This leads to a procedural complication for the impeachment trial. Theoretically, because the case was filed on December 9, 2016, the Constitutional Court is allowed to deliberate until May 2017--which could be trouble, because the terms for two of the justices end before then. The term for Chief Justice Park Han-cheol (executive branch appointee) ends in January 2017, and the term for Justice Lee Jeong-mi  (judicial branch appointee) is up in March 2017. The two outgoing justices are considered centrists who likely would have voted in favor of removal.

The quorum for an impeachment case is seven justices, and it takes at least six votes (six actual votes, not two-thirds of the quorum or other ratio) to remove the president from office. If the court does take all the way until May 2017 to decide, the court would barely make the quorum. With just seven justices hearing the case, it would only take two justices to deny the removal of the president. (It is highly unlikely that a new justice would be appointed in the middle of the impeachment process.)

In short, if you want to see Park Geun-hye go--as overwhelming majority of Koreans do--the circumstances are less than ideal. So hang tight, folks. We are still in this for at least another several months, and the outcome is anything but guaranteed.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

*There were 56 votes against. Assembly Member Choi Gyeong-hwan, a close ally of Park Geun-hye, refused to vote. There were two votes for "abstain," and seven invalid votes that did not count. Most of the Assembly Members who cast the invalid votes apparently voted "for," but made other marks on the ballot to make their votes invalid--apparently in order to plausibly claim either way that they voted either "for" or "against," depending on the result. Because the vote was done anonymously, we cannot tell who these cowards were.

**One of the best things about Korea's judicial system is that cases move really, really fast. An American lawyer would have a heart attack if she had to prepare a responsive pleading in one week and prepare for a hearing within two weeks afterward for a case as big as this one.


  1. Is there any possibility of "crossover"? For example could a judge in the judiciary be nominated to serve in the constitutional court?

  2. Has Park been convicted of any crimes? Or are we still at the stage of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks?

    Granted, we love living in a world of rumor and innuendo (Clinton's campaign and CNN thrive on bringing that stuff against Trump, for instance). But hopefully we will demand something akin to a criminal conviction based upon proof beyond reasonable doubt, of sufficient seriousness before unseating a President and destroying her life.

    1. She has been charged with 3rd party bribery? There is a lot of evidence she herself actively directed a lot of these crimes.

      This isn't about Choi it's about Park and what a crazy drugged insecure princess she is. Her new nickname is toilet princess because she demanded the toilet be changed.


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