With the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the democratic world seems to have entered an era of uneasiness and rebellion. In a part of the world remote from Europe and the United States, a relatively “young democracy”—South Korea—is not immune to the changes that are sweeping through the world’s democracies. The country is experiencing a crisis unprecedented since the 1990s when it consolidated its democracy. A recent political scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her close friend Choi Soon-sil has spilled over politics and extended to South Korea’s politics, economy and education, leading to a far-reaching national crisis. Hundreds and thousands of South Korean citizens have taken to the streets holding up candles in protest against Park and Choi. Since the scandal broke out, South Korean politics have been trapped in a perpetual whirlwind.
Last December, South Korea’s parliament decided to impeach President Park over a controversy that centres on her relationship with her friend Choi and accusations of abuse of political power. The connection between Park and Choi goes as far back as the 1970s. Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a dictator believed to have led South Korea on the path of economic modernisation and renovation during his reign from 1963 to 1979.
Choi’s deceased father is a shaman and a religious cult leader, and became Park’s mentor as well as, according to many sources, her lover. He allegedly claimed to have been visited by the soul of Park’s deceased mother who asked him to guide her daughter. After Park’s father was assassinated in 1979, she had to come to terms with the loss of both parents and the legacy her father left behind. As Park conceded in a TV briefing, Choi kept her company and lent her support during her ‘most difficult years’. This has led to what some have described as an “unusual relationship” between the two.
Their relationship became a subject of controversy when it became clear that Choi capitalised on her ties with Park to get her daughter accepted into Ewha Woman’s University, a prestigious private women’s university in Seoul. As the investigation went on, it turned out that Choi not only exerted influence over Park during her presidential campaign, but also, since Park’s inauguration, interfered with many major and minor presidential decisions, including appointing senior government officials and revising the contents of Park’s speeches.
At the centre of the scandal are allegations that Choi used her presidential connections to pressure companies to hand over billions of South Korean won in donations to two non-profit foundations—K-Sports Foundation and Mir Foundation. Both organisations turned out to be controlled by Choi for her personal benefit. Among a myriad charges, Park is particularly accused of abusing presidential power and of conniving with Choi in helping her collect donations from major companies. The public is outraged by the fact that a friend of the President with no meaningful education or government post has had the opportunity to influence, and even supersede, the democratically elected President in making important decisions, even more so with the approval of the President. Park’s subsequent denial of wrongdoings and her refusal to step down has received widespread criticism.
The case of impeachment is currently under review in the constitutional court and the final decision lies with its seven judges. Although there is a precedent of presidential impeachment in South Korea dating from 2004, it was in the end reversed by the court partly because then President Roh Moo-hyun had overwhelming public support. Today, things are different. Park’s impeachment was not initially manoeuvred by parliament, but resulted from a fierce public demand for her to step down. South Korean MPs are often quoted as saying that they voted for impeachment under the pressure of popular demand, though opposition parties tend to cast this pressure in a positive light.
The discourse of the “will of the South Korean people” echoes the sweeping victory of the ‘will of the British people’ following the Brexit vote. Moral reasons aside, it is still not evident, in legal terms, whether, and to what extent, alleged wrongdoings committed by Park generate legal consequences that can make a decisive case for her impeachment. It also remains to be seen whether, and in what way, the constitutional court can reach an informed decision in accordance with the constitution only, rather than tainted by popular demand. Procedural justice is as important as consequential justice.
Democratic citizens’ active and even agonistic political participation guarantees the well-functioning of a democracy. But, it can go awry when it begins to turn itself into the tyranny of the majority. The minority voice must be heard if only to give due regard to both sides of the debate. The scandal in South Korea, however, is complicated by the fact that the minority are those in power, for whom the public holds a growing sense of disdain. One problem is the lack of transparency in the operation of political power. This makes it technically impossible for citizens to hold those in power to account, which further stirs up distrust and contempt. It is even difficult, as reported, for Park’s Ministers and secretaries to meet and brief her in person. (Click here and here to read more about the covert ways in which the government has been run under Park’s reign). This inevitably leaves us in doubt about her occult style and the secretive figures behind the veil. It is not enough to guarantee a right of holding up candles and mass gathering, but a right, with a political culture underlying it, of civil participation whereby citizens can interact with politicians in every major step of policy-making.
Another problem specific to South Korean democracy is the continuing collusion of business and politics —“Jung-kyong-yoo-chak” in Korean. A recent episode in the unfolding scandal is the arrest of Lee Jae-yong, an heir to Samsung, amid allegations of him offering briberies in the form of donations to Choi’s K-Sports and Mir Foundations at Park’s request. It is alleged that his donations were in exchange for government support for the 2015 merger of Cheil Industries and Samsung C&T which paves way for Lee’s succession to his father, Lee Khun-hee. The deal came at the bitter expense of Samsung shareholders as shares of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries both dropped substantively due to this deal.
For the last several decades, the public authorities in South Korea have been run in close connection with chaebol—large, family-controlled business conglomerates that dominate the economy and the domestic market. For decades, these conglomerates have made decisive contributions to economic growth, and the government, in return, has granted them numerous benefits and privileges. A direct consequence of this structure is that the South Korean society has been shaped in a way that caters to, rather than challenges, chaebol domination. This stifles fair market competition and distribution of resources, which, in the long run, is detrimental to the economy and the overall welfare of ordinary citizens.
It has long been a concern for political philosophers how to reconcile the popular demand of demos and a collective decision that is right and grounded in fact. Popular demand led to Brexit, Trump’s election and Park’s impeachment and whether demos have made a wise decision remains to be seen. What is crucial here is that we should not simply equate popular demand with populism and bemoan it retrospectively, but figure out ways in which citizens’ participation in democracy can be intensified so that their demand can be attended to far before it explodes. In this sense, opacity, bribery and corruption are diseases that stand in the way. Reforms to increase political transparency and accountability as well as to deliver a collusion-free economic model remain a crucial task ahead.