Soul Searching in South Korea
(Project-syndicate Mar.16, 2017)
SEOUL – The impeachment, and removal from office, of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on
charges of corruption and abuse of power has rocked the country’s political establishment and
divided the electorate. Not since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, rooted partly in the flawed
economic policies of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, have South Koreans faced such an impasse.
It’s still too early to know who will succeed her in the Blue House (the presidential seat); a special
election has been called for May 9. But this much is clear: with Park’s unceremonious departure, a
change in South Korea’s ruling party is all but assured. And with new blood must come renewed
vigor to tackle governance problems – from dirty money in politics to incoherent foreign policy –
that have plagued South Korea for far too long.
South Korea’s current political crisis began in October 2016, when allegations emerged that Park had pressured the chaebols – the country’s giant family-owned conglomerates – to funnel huge sums of money into two foundations controlled by her close personal friend, Choi Soon-sil. Word of Park’s
cronyism left many South Koreans feeling betrayed by a president who had vowed to lead differently.
Park, whose authoritarian style resembled that of her father, routinely disregarded basic norms of
liberal democracy. She scoffed at the rule of law and separation of government powers. After being
accused of corruption, she simply ignored calls to appear before the Constitutional Court to testify.
Prosecutors have issued another summons for her to appear in court on March 21; it is still unclear
if she will, even though she has now lost her immunity from prosecution.
Park’s removal from office almost certainly means that political power will shift from the formerly
Saenuri, or “New Frontier” (now the Liberty Korea) Party to opposition forces. At the moment,
candidates from the center-left Democratic Party of Korea are leading in an effort to end nine years
of conservative rule. Moon Jae-in, a former Democratic Party of Korea leader and the runner-up to
Park in 2012, is the opposition’s front-runner by a wide margin.
Whoever becomes South Korea’s next president will be greeted by profound political, economic, and
foreign policy challenges.
On the domestic front, the president will inherit a political system in need of significant reform. Aside from calls to solidify the separation of powers by establishing a more robust system of legal checks
and balances, there is near-consensus on the need to overhaul the current five-year, single-term
presidency. Established in 1987 during South Korea’s transition to democracy, the short timeframe
hampers the incumbent’s ability to devise, implement, and sustain long-term policies. Park, like
many of her predecessors, pushed to change the term limits, but her efforts were stymied by bad
These and other changes will require democratic leadership, based on active communication with
various segments of society. South Koreans are hopeful in this regard, believing that anyone will be
better than Park. (According to one opinion poll, her approval rating before leaving office was a
The next president’s biggest economic challenge will be to untangle the ties between politicians and
chaebol owners. At the moment, the chaebols’ proximity to political power reduces the transparency
of corporate governance, discourages competition, and weakens the innovative potential of small-
and medium-size enterprises. The arrest in February of the Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, on bribery
charges, indicates the scope of the problem. With all major presidential candidates emphasizing the
importance of fixing the chaebol problem, changes on this front are possible.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the next president will face a foreign-policy puzzle that
perplexed Park for most of her tenure. Her successor will need more diplomatic acumen to stabilize
relations with Japan, China, and Russia, while simultaneously working to denuclearize North Korea
and thus reduce the threat Kim Jong-un’s regime poses to the region.
Here, the wildcard is US President Donald Trump, who is creating his own brand of uncertainty in
Asia. How Trump chooses to deal with North Korea, in particular, will be an early test for South
Korea’s next leader. If, as I suspect, the Trump administration turns to tightened sanctions
(including secondary boycotts) and dialogue, leaders in Seoul will be able to adjust accordingly.
There will still be scope for agreement if political leaders on all sides are willing to listen. The United
States’ deployment in South Korea of an advanced anti-missile system is a case in point. While the
move has angered China’s leaders, there remains room for compromise, especially if the system’s
deployment is made temporary and linked to North Korea’s denuclearization.
South Korea has experienced – and survived – political and economic upheaval before. After all, it
was Park’s own father who, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped to build a system that did little to
discourage the corrupting links between politicians and chaebols. The weak financial institutions
and shady corporate sector that grew from his legacy conspired to make the pain of the 1997
financial crisis even worse.
Then, as now, failure at the top prompted voters to demand a new direction. Conservative leaders’
collective inability to insulate South Korea from the events of 1997 cleared the way for a liberal
opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung, to assume the presidency in 1998.
South Korea is very likely on the cusp of another political housecleaning. But, regardless of who
arrives at the Blue House in May, their job – and the job of their party – will be to tackle the
challenges that Park was so ill equipped to address.