End of a chapter

The President’s removal from office deepens South Korea’s democratic evolution

Updated - November 29, 2021 01:32 pm IST

Published - March 14, 2017 12:02 am IST

The removal of a sitting President in South Korea brings to a close one phase in the months-long popular mobilisation to enforce accountability among the high and mighty. This verdict by South Korea’s highest court, upholding Parliament’s vote to impeach Park Geun-hye, could well herald a new era in a land where it has for long been unthinkable to get the powerful to face justice even for serious crimes. Significantly, Parliament’s move in December to unseat Ms. Park by an overwhelming vote had been backed even by legislators from her conservative Saenuri party. Stripped of presidential immunity, Ms. Park could now face criminal proceedings on allegations that she was complicit in nefarious activities involving her close confidante. The chief accusation is that they solicited contributions to promote dodgy non-profit organisations in return for clearing questionable corporate deals. The protests last year by hundreds of thousands who sought action in the influence-peddling scandal, as well as violent clashes that followed Friday’s judicial verdict, are an indication of how polarising a figure Ms. Park has been through her tenure since 2013. Her autocratic and whimsical rule was marked by fierce attacks on labour unions, smear campaigns against critics, and efforts to rewrite history textbooks. The most provocative foreign policy move was the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, an American missile defence system, escalating regional tensions. China retaliated with calls for the boycott of South Korean imports.

The divisions among her followers and detractors are as much ideological as they are intergenerational. A number of Ms. Park’s party supporters continue to harbour sympathies for the daughter of South Korea’s moderniser, the military dictator Park Chung-hee. But younger generations see the severing of all links with this authoritarian past as a necessary guarantee for the consolidation of democracy, three decades after return to civilian rule. The chaebols — South Korea’s highly influential family-owned conglomerates — may have had economic motivations to lean heavily on political patronage during the country’s industrial ascendency and integration into the global market. But such cosy arrangements are proving to be untenable when exceptions of the past are sought to be institutionalised. The task of public cleansing in South Korea is far from over, as is evident from the ongoing criminal proceedings involving tycoons from its best-known corporations. The recent assertion of the independence of the judiciary from political interference and the capacity of legislators to uphold their authority are notable. It would be no surprise, therefore, if South Korea’s example becomes a model worthy of emulation elsewhere in the region. South Koreans are due to elect their next President by May — and by all indications, they are seeking to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions.

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