South Korea

Landmark exit

Print edition : April 14, 2017

A rally in Seongju, South Korea, on March 18 against a plan to deploy there the advanced U.S. missile defense system THAAD. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Former President Park Geun-hye arrives at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office to undergo prosecution questioning on March 21. Photo: Getty Images

Moon Jae-in, the opposition's presidential contender. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

The recently impeached President’s regime was marked by worsening ties with North Korea, anti-union moves and blacklisting of critics of the government.

THE unanimous decision of the South Korean Constitutional Court to uphold the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye by the country’s parliament is a landmark event. It is the first time that a democratically elected President of the country has been impeached and thrown out of office. Syngman Rhee, another South Korean President, had fled the country in the face of widespread public protests. But that was in 1960, more than 25 years before the country transitioned theoretically into a constitutional democracy. Park Geun-hye was also the first woman to be elected President of South Korea. Diehard supporters of the right-wing President staged a violent protest after the Constitutional Court announced its decision. But they were outnumbered by people loudly cheering the outcome. Koreans had been gathering in huge numbers on the streets of the capital, Seoul, every Saturday for several months demanding the immediate resignation of their president. The South Korean parliament impeached her in December on charges of corruption, breach of trust and dereliction of duty.

Park Geun-hye denied all the accusations against her in spite of the ample evidence unearthed by investigators probing the allegations. She has refused to say whether she concurs with the Constitutional Court’s judgment. For that matter, she has refused to acknowledge any guilt or wrongdoing. Instead, she has been feigning innocence and suggesting that the court’s decision was incorrect and politically motivated. She no longer enjoys immunity from prosecution as she has been removed from her constitutional post. Her close friend and associate, Choi Soon-sil, is in jail for soliciting and receiving more than $69 million from big business conglomerates such as Samsung for out-of-turn favours.

With the goal of implementing her extreme right-wing agenda, Park Geun-hye went to the extent of preparing a blacklist of thousands of writers, journalists and intellectuals who were critical of the government’s policies. They included some of South Korea’s most famous filmmakers and actors. Yoo Jin-ryong, a former Culture Minister under Park Geun-hye, said that the list had originated from the President’s office. Those on the blacklist were denied work in government-controlled art institutions and media outlets.

Park Geun-hye’s very ascent to power was by dubious means. It was discovered that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the country’s national intelligence agency, was clandestinely involved in her election campaign. The agency had sent over a million messages through social media to bolster her campaign. An official inquiry that followed covered up these serious transgressions of electoral law. Once in power, she assiduously implemented her hawkish right-wing agenda, most notably in the government’s North Korea policy, which was toughened.

Her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, also a conservative, had dumped the “sunshine policy” implemented by former President Kim Dae-jung. The policy had sought normalisation of relations with North Korea by engaging in dialogue and allowing trade and investments. Last year, Park Geun-hye ordered the closure of the Kaesong industrial complex that the South Korean government was jointly running with North Korea, after Pyongyang carried out one of its nuclear and missile tests. The complex, situated in North Korea, was a successful confidence-building venture. It was set up during the presidency of Kim Dae-jung in 2002. Kim Dae-jung, the architect of the “sunshine policy”, was given the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to foster peace in the Korean peninsula. South Korea had invested more than $852 million in the factories and infrastructure it had built in the border town of Kaesong. South Korean companies gained by utilising the comparatively cheaper North Korean labour force. The two Koreas agreed in 2013 that they would not allow the project to be impacted “by political situations under any circumstances”.

Park Geun-hye not only rode roughshod over this agreement but went a step further and resumed hostile propaganda broadcasts across the border. Her government also accelerated plans to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence batteries on Korean soil despite vociferous domestic objections and protests from China. The first elements of THAAD were deployed in the second week of March even as the impeached President was packing her bags and getting ready to leave the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace. Elections are to be held in May, and the opposition, which is predicted to win, has strongly opposed the installation of THAAD systems on Korean soil. THAAD is a battery of 48 missile interceptors, with a range of 200 kilometres, on mobile erector launchers that use powerful radar and infrared technology.

THAAD has its limitations as it does not have the ability to stop short-range missiles fired from just across the border into thickly populated areas such as Seoul. Lee Jae-myung, the candidate of the left-of-centre Democratic Party of Korea, has objected to the hasty decision of the disgraced government to allow the entry of the THAAD system. “To be honest, deploying THAAD will hurt both us and China. No one will gain anything from it. The starting point of THAAD is wrong, so we have to reconsider it completely. Otherwise our future will be gloomy, chaotic and insecure,” he said. Moon Jae-in, a former opposition leader and a leading contender for the presidency, recently said that although he valued the friendship with the United States, South Korea should also learn “to say no to the Americans”. The liberal opposition has said that the THAAD deployment will lead to an unnecessary escalation of tensions in the Korean peninsula and the region. Moon Jae-in is of the view that the deployment was done in a hurry to make it a “fait accompli” and an issue in the May elections.

The Donald Trump administration was in a hurry to install the missile system before a new left-of-centre government was in place in Seoul. The previous Barack Obama administration and the Park Geun-hye administration worked closely to coordinate their hawkish North Korea policies and close all doors on the continuation of the dialogue process. Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in a statement in the second week of March that the THAAD system was deployed “to honour alliance commitments to South Korea and for the protection of American troops in the region, U.S. allies and the American homeland”.

When Park Geun-hye was campaigning for the presidency, she had promised to run an inclusive and transparent government. Many South Koreans had very bad memories of the dictatorial rule of her father, Park Chung-hee. No dissent or trade union activity was allowed during his long rule. His daughter turned out to be a chip off the old block. Soon after assuming office, she started targeting the trade union movement. She tried her best to ban the left-leaning Korean Teachers and Educational Workers Union. There were police raids on the offices of the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, some of which were ransacked. The leader of the union, Han Sang-gyun, was sent to prison on trumped-up charges.

Park Geun-hye also banned the United Progressive Party (UPP), a small left-wing party, on charges that it was close to North Korea. The party had five members in the parliament. All of them had to resign after the party was banned in November 2013. The UPP stood for peace and eventual reconciliation with North Korea. Nine party members were charged with “rebellion” and sent to jail. The UPP leader, Lee Seok-ki, had strongly denied the charge that his party had any links with North Korea. He was sentenced to nine years in prison by the Constitutional Court.

Sewol ferry disaster

It was on Park Geun-hye’s watch that the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, which killed more than 250 children, occurred. As rescue efforts were going on, the President could not be contacted for more than seven hours. Her whereabouts at the time are still shrouded in mystery. The government badly mishandled the rescue efforts. An official inquiry commission was constituted after much pressure from the families of those who perished, but the government ensured that the commission remained toothless. Those who called for an independent inquiry into the disaster were tarred by the President’s supporters as “pro North Korea commies”. Her government also tried to rewrite school textbooks to reflect a revisionist version of Korean history. The new textbooks were to be introduced later this year. With Park Geun-hye now cooling her heels at home, that threat has vanished, but it could reappear if one of her acolytes wins the presidential election.

Huge crowds have been protesting in the capital, calling for Park Geun-hye’s immediate arrest and speedy trial. The conservative media as well as many members of her own party have stopped supporting the fallen President. The opposition has pledged to end the nexus of corruption between the government and big business, which has proved detrimental to both the country’s politics and economics. Moon Jae-in, the opposition’s presidential candidate, has also said that a new government under him will try to restart talks with North Korea. “We must embrace the North Korean people as part of the Korean nation, and to do that, whether we like it or not, we must recognise Kim Jong-un as their leader and as our dialogue partner,” he stressed in a recent interview.

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