President Park Geun-hye was ousted from her presidency when the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to impeach her on March 10. The unstable political situation comes as China is flexing its muscle in retaliation against the installation of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Korea, delivering a blow to the Korean tourism industry.
Minister Han Min-gu of the National Defense Ministry presided over a teleconference with commanders-in-chief of the Korean Armed Forces following the Supreme Court’s ruling to stay alert against any North Korean provocations.
The new U.S. administration maintains a firm stance over the THAAD issue with its major ally South Korea despite China’s opposition. Park became the first Korean president to be expelled from her presidency in a graft scandal involving her influence-peddling and irregularities conducted by her 40-year-old confidant and friend, Choi Soon-sil, whose name has been changed to Choi Seo-won. The National Assembly approved a bill to impeach former President Roh Moon-hyun while in his term, but the Supreme Court later rejected it.
The Supreme Court approved Park’s ouster since she wielded influence to coerce major conglomerates to donate money to establish two foundations, helping Choi exploited them for her gains.
The special prosecutor’s team named President Park as a suspect in the graft scandal, wrapping up its three-month probe into the case on Feb. 28. The team tried to conduct a face-to-face probe into President Park but failed to do so. Thirteen charges were filed against Park ― eight by the state prosecution and five by the independent counsel ― but neither body could indict her due to presidential immunity.
They also indicted Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jay-yong for kickbacks involving Park and Choi. After returning to her private home in Samseong-dong, Seoul, on March 12, Park indicated that she disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling.
The prosecution is soon to continue its probe, questioning Park as a civilian this time, not as the chief executive. As a civilian, Park could be forced to stand trial for any criminal charges. A series of political developments that ended up with her ouster is a reminder of the stark political situation of the nation, which is sharply divided, causing huge social costs stemming from conflicts and confrontations.
In a relief, there were no major clashes or involved casualties ― even through two persons died in the course of protests. The latest developments have deepened a decades-long rift between pro-opposition side and conservatives. Hundreds of thousands of protesters carrying candles had taken to the street for several weeks calling for Park’s resignation. Later, throngs of conservatives, including members of the pro-Park body “Parksamo,” rallied in her support.
The latest political fiasco has a resemblance to numerous protests involving hundreds of thousands of people who took to the street against the signing of Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement under ex-President Lee Myung-bak’s term, which the U.S. is now seeking to revise. The problem, some experts say, is that political leaders have fanned fears and speculation on top of the media’s unfounded reports. Even some political leaders shouted slogans instigating an uprising.
The latest impeachment case has once again confirmed that all things have to be done in accordance with the law, order and the Constitution. A presidential vote to elect Park’s successor is slated for May 9, seven months earlier than the normally scheduled presidential election had Park not be thrown out of office. Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is considered a front-runner in the upcoming election.
Moon, former chief of staff of the late President Roh Moo-hyun, is trailed by Ahn Hee-jeong, now Chuengcheongnam-do governor, and Lee Jae-myung, now Seongnam mayor, in the intraparty nomination race. Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party, Rep. Yoo Sung-min of the Barun Party, and Hong Joon-pyo, now of the Liberty Korea Party are throwing their hats into the ring, but several polls show they are far behind the presidential contenders on the DPK ticket.
But the presidential race may yet present a twist. Former DPK leader Kim Jong-in, who recently broke from DPK, is seeking to forge an alliance with the People’s Party and conservative parties in an effort to put up a viable opposition to Moon’s election under the cause of the revision of a presidential system of government.