Seoul, South Korea – The months-long movement that led to the first ever impeachment of a South Korean president ended with a bang.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people massed in Gwanghwamun Square, a large public space in the heart of the capital, Seoul, for one last Saturday evening protest, which ended with a fireworks display that lit up the nighttime sky while celebrating a court’s decision to formally impeach Park.
Since allegations of corruption and influence peddling involving now-former President Park Geun-hye began to surface last year, large crowds gathered in Gwanghwamun to march and chant for Park to be removed from office.
Gwanghwamun became a hub for activists and citizens concerned about a broad range of issues, chief among them, the close ties between the government, big business and Choi Soon-sil, a long-time confidante of Park. The protesters represented a broad swath of South Korea‘s population, among them students, professionals and labourers. Many protests had an upbeat, festive atmosphere, to the point where some parents brought their children.
The morning after the finale, the square had been swept clean but retained reminders of the litany of issues that sparked the movement to oust Park. Groups of artists who say they were blacklisted by the government had set up tents, as had families of those who died in the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster.
Though Park is gone, these groups are sticking around, as her impeachment does not promise a resolution to their grievances.
Those who attended the protests hope that Park’s ouster will herald a fresh start for the country’s politics.
“The impeachment signals the beginning of a new era for our country, an era of justice and the rule of law,” said Sung Won-ki, a Kangwon National University professor who was manning a booth distributing information on the risks of nuclear energy. He and several colleagues plan to run this booth over the upcoming election campaign, hoping South Korea’s next president will reduce the use of nuclear power, and cancel plans to construct new nuclear plants.
Sung added, “We accomplished something significant, but there is a lot still to be done.” Sung and others described Park’s impeachment as a sign that the South Korean system works, even though it isn’t perfect.
On Sunday, Jeon Soo-jung, a woman in her mid-30s, walked hand-in-hand around the square with her six-year-old son. She described Park’s impeachment as a victory for regular people. “I thought it was important to bring him here and explain what happened, even though he’s just a kid,” Jeon said.
“This is where history was made.”
What happens to Park now?
Park, 65, is the daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee. She took office as president in early 2013 as South Korea’s first female head of state.
While the protests focused discontent on a cast of antagonists, including the leaders of the corporate conglomerates, including the vice chairman of Samsung, the country’s most iconic business, that dominate the South Korean economy, and Choi, most protesters directed their criticism at Park, and calls for her to step down were the most chanted refrains at public gatherings.
For many, Park became a symbol of an ineffective state apparatus that was failing voters.
“So much anger was directed at Park Geun-hye because she, on a personal level, came to symbolise a corrupt, pre-modern and undemocratic system of rule by one small, incompetent group of people,” wrote Yoon Tae-jin, a professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of Communication and Arts, in a column in the left-of-centre Kyunghyang newspaper.
South Korea’s legislature passed a motion for Park’s impeachment on December 9 of last year, and she spent the rest of the winter secluded in her residence at the Blue House, the presidential office, in Seoul. She emerged after dark on March 12, stepping into a sea of colleagues and supporters as she was driven in a motorcade from the Blue House to her private residence in southern Seoul.
On her way out, she showed no remorse for her involvement in a scandal that shook the country, telling media, “I believe the truth will be revealed .”
With the Constitutional Court decision to uphold Park’s impeachment, Park becomes a private citizen again, and no longer has immunity from criminal charges. Prosecutors will investigate Park on charges of bribery, and, if convicted, she faces the possibility of incarceration.
Not everyone is happy about Park’s downfall. Though public opinion poll data from Gallup Korea showed 77 percent of South Koreans were in favour of impeaching Park, with only 18 percent opposed, the minority who wanted Park to remain in office were highly vocal, and visible, in the days leading up to the impeachment. Right-wing groups held raucous protests, and three died when Park supporters clashed with police after the impeachment verdict was announced.
About a kilometre down the road from Gwanghwamun, in a large muddy area in front of Seoul City Hall was a very different kind of tent village, this one set up and populated by far-right activists opposed to Park’s impeachment. On Sunday morning, the handful of remaining supporters said they were sad and frustrated.
A signboard hung on one tent called the charges against Park “A subversive conspiracy promoted by the press.” Other signs were breathless exhortations to prevent communists from taking over South Korea. One sign, intentionally or not, echoed US President Donald Trump, reading simply, “Sad!”
One middle-aged man said that without a president in office that takes a hardline approach to North Korea, South Korea would be vulnerable to attack. “I’m worried that the hard left is going to seize power now,” he said.
Where do South Korean politics go from here?
South Korean law mandates that a presidential election be held within 60 days of a president’s impeachment, meaning voters will likely go to the polls on May 9.
At this point, the outlook is promising for South Korea’s liberals, who could take advantage of a right-wing beset by scandal and internal division. Liberal stalwart Moon Jae-in (who lost the 2012 president election to Park Geun-hye) has a comfortable lead in the latest polls, with 32 percent of support; Hwang Kyo-ahn, the prime minister and acting president, is his closest right-wing competitor, trailing with nine percent.
South Korea’s liberals have not held power since the election of Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak in 2008. In recent years, liberals have been plagued by internal defeats in local elections. While running on platforms of standard liberal promises like increased welfare and corporate regulation, the main opposition parties all brand themselves with descriptors as being for “democracy” and the “people”, since “socialism” is an off-putting term to many South Koreans, due to its echoes of association with North Korea.
“It’s the liberal’s election to lose. To be specific, Moon Jae-in’s. With Park ousted and snap elections being held, Moon is in position to ride the wave of anti-Party discontent all the way to the Blue House,” said Steven Denney, a Graduate Fellow at the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto and specialist on South Korean politics.
Kim Sung-eun, a 22-year-old university student, says she welcomes the chance for the country to pick a new leader. Kim participated in several weekly protests in Seoul, after being spurred to attend public gatherings for the first time when she heard the extent of the influence peddling allegations concerning Park and Choi.
She says she is looking forward to her first chance to vote in a presidential election. “My trust in the government has fallen, but if the new president listens to the people and makes changes, that trust can be restored,” she said.