-What comes next in a people-power movement
that changed South Korea’s leadership?-
Moon J. Pak
Hundreds of thousands of people marched the streets of Seoul and all of Korea’s major cities in November, calling for the impeachment of president Geun-hye Park. It is evident that the people got their wish; Park is now impeached. There is a window of opportunity to harness this people power to something that could organize for lasting change. But how should it be done?
The result of the 2012 presidential election in South Korea, in which Geun-hye Park, the daughter of the former dictator, Chung-hee Park, was elected with a very small electoral margin was, a profound disappointment for all the progressive elements of the country.
After the five years of conservative government under the outgoing, Myung-bak Lee, there had been an ardent hope that the new government could be led by a progressive leadership. In the recent past, there were two progressive leaders Dae-jung Kim ad Moo-hyun Roh, and during their administrations, hope for the peace and reconciliation in the peninsula was high. There was a people-oriented economic policy that placed the country 11th in gross domestic product (GDP) of the developed countries whose economic progress is measured by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). By many measures, the country was thriving, and its progress has continued.
During the initial four years of her stay in the Blue House, Park’s record unfortunately failed to reflect the concerns of the liberals as well as the majority of South Korean people. That concern clearly manifested in the mid-term election, when the results showed a disastrous failure for her conservative Saenuri party, resulting in the loss of its majority in the Congress.
Her failure to adopt policies and/or executive actions that are conducive to the office of a president elected popularly, under the democratic constitution are numerous. It actually represents the majority of her policies and actions. Furthermore, these policy actions and directives were adopted and issued by her through her office, without proper consultations, discussions, and or support by her advisors, or even the legislative branch of South Korea. The process she used was rather reflective of her father, Park Chung-hee’s dictatorial approach.
One of the tragic event befallen on the country during her early reign is the sinking of the ferry ship Saewol-Ho, where more than 300 children’s lives were lost. This accident is more tragic because it could have been avoided. The tragedy was exacerbated because during and after the ferry was sinking, appropriate rescue measures were not followed, and most of the people onboard died. Largely due to fear of exposing the inadequacy of her leadership, the president has refused to investigate the event officially and objectively to this date.
Working through her intelligence agency, Park has applied the infamous National Security Law. The law was instituted during her father’s administration, primarily to prosecute his political opposition. The law prohibits speech or actions that praise or favor North Korea, which can be extended to cover a wide variety of exercise of free speech or association. In recent years, Park has successfully removed politicians and abolished political parties that she regarded as critical of her position, by accusing them to be pro-North.
In her effort to revise the history of her father’s role as a dictator, thus justify numerous, cruel and inhuman actions committed by him, Park ordered that an official government-approved history text be written. The project was undertaken by a group of historians appointed by her, and the official text was ordered to be adopted and taught, to the exclusion of other history texts, to public school students of the country.
Concerning South Korea’s policy toward the U.S., Park’s position was completely pro-U.S.; it could be more accurately described as one subservient to the U.S.
During the early phase of her term, there was a scheduled return of wartime control of the ROK military to its own government. During the Korean War, the U.S. technically held the ultimate control over South Korea’s military, and that status was extended, and was still in place at the time Park came to power. However, she has flatly refused to accept the scheduled transfer, thus she has become the only head of a state in the world, who does not have control over its own military.
Following blindly Obama’s “Asia Pivot” policy, Park took steps toward reconciliation and cooperation with Japan. There was to be a U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance. Toward that goal, she signed an information exchange agreement, she agreed to a post-war settlement of the issue of the military sexual slavery perpetrated by the Japanese military against Korean women before and during World War II (the so-called comfort women), an agreement that has been repudiated by the former comfort women and their supporting organizations. She even made some informal comments which ignored a post-World War II territorial dispute concerning the ownership of the Dok-do Islands, a small group of islands originally belonging to South Korea.
More recently, she had almost nonchalantly accepted the U.S. proposal to place so called “Terminal High Altitude Air Defense” (THAAD) base in South Korea, a move that is ostensibly to defend the country against the missile threat from North Korea. It is almost self-evident that any missile attack from North, if ever it comes, would not involve the high-altitude flight route and that the THADD is basically a U.S. attempt to gain an operational advantage in nuclear deterrence of weapons from China and Russia.
Locating a THAAD missile in South Korea will not only endanger the country in the case of an open conflict between the U.S., China and Russia, but could also endanger the diplomatic and economic relationship between South Korea and China. The economy of South Korea is entirely dependent on international trade, and its most important trade partner is China, with whom the country conducts 35 percent of its total annual trade volume. For China, this trade is only five percent of its world-wide trade volume.
South Korea’s relationship with North Korea is perhaps the most important issue for any South Korean leader. Park has clearly failed in this primary relationship, and as a result has jeopardized the fragile peace of the Korean peninsula, and has made reunification seem like a distant hope.
In following Obama’s North Korea policy, dubbed “Strategic Patience,” she has reinforced a hardline policy which enforces isolation and punishes the North’s weapons development programs. Under Park, South Korea has stopped any humanitarian assistance to the North and continued joint military exercises with U.S.in disputed waters off the west coast. South Korea has also closed the Kayseong Joint Industrial Complex, a joint effort to manufacture and sell goods made with South Korean materials and North Korean labor. As a consequence of these actions, the tension in the peninsula has increased to a level which has never been higher.
It was in this extremely touchy environment, that incidents of Park’s personal misbehavior came to light in October. There was a spontaneous people’s movement against her. All socioeconomic groups in all regions of South Korean population came out en masse to demonstrate against Park’s presidency.
The shocking misbehaviors were twofold; first it was discovered has been under the direction and influence of a woman, Soon-sil Choi who could only be described as a shaman. As the scandal emerged, it was also discovered that Choi had used her considerable influence to extort huge amounts of money, in the order of nearly $70 million, from many South Korean businesses. Park was directly and indirectly, involved in this extortion in her official capacity as president. She used bribery, graft and collusion between the business and government, a practice that has been going on in South Korean society for many years.
This combined disregard of democratic principles and the people’s will, misuse of the office of the presidency, illegal collusion with business, and endangerment of the peninsula to the threat of another war united South Koreans in anger. Huge daily street demonstrations formed in Seoul and all the major cities, with people carrying placards demanding her immediate resignation or expulsion from the presidency.
While Park admitted wrongdoing, she refused repeatedly to resign. Finally, Congress convened to consider available legal actions to remove her from the presidency. On December 9, 2016, with a more than two-thirds majority, her impeachment was passed, and presented to the country’s Supreme Court for its approval. The court decision will take some time, but the impeachment immediately took away her rights to govern.
While the Park demonstrations were ongoing, the initial thrust toward regime change weakened and the conservative players in South Korean politics, including Saenuri Party, followers of dictator Chung-hee Park, and many of established mega-businesses (chaebols), defended Geun-hye Park. This group is trying to influence the Supreme Court, which is still in deliberation.
The people’s uprising during the past three months is not just an anti-Park movement, but an expression of profound discontent about what the years of conservative government (of Myung-bak Lee, followed by Park) have wrought. There has been relentless illegal collusion between chaebols and politicians; a widening of the gap between the rich and poor; and a diminishing hope for peace, reconciliation and reunification of the divided peninsula. In South Korean society, there is a perception of increased bribery, graft, and moral disintegration in politics. This phenomenon and uprising could be termed the “November Revolution.”
The next step in this revolution should be organization. A revolution needs to be organized and a cohesive leadership structure must evolve from the loosely structured demonstrations. There was massive people power on the streets of South Korea in November. Even a casual observer could see labor union groups, student activists, women’s organizations, government workers, disenfranchised politicians, even musicians and artists.
Any new November Revolution structure needs to admit a broad representation of South Korean society, but with cohesive and clear objectives for what such a revolution should achieve. To sustain the November Revolution, a coalition of progressive politicians is needed. The coalition could be composed of past failed presidential candidates, currently popular mayors of major South Korean cities, and popular provincial governors, or other well-known progressive leaders.
Given the enormous people’s power demonstrated in the streets of Seoul over a long period of time, and the near-definite demise of Park, it is time for a leadership group to emerge, and provide needed socio-political leadership to the street movement.
(Korean Quarterly, Vol. 20, NUM 02-Year 2017)
Moon J. Pak, M.D., Ph.D.
Senior Vice-President, Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC)
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