On March 10, South Korea’s constitutional court approved 8-0 the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. Ever since prosecutors uncovered the details of the ties between Park, her closest friend, Choi Sun-sil, and a number of her aides (most, including Park, held in jail while facing changes ranging from bribery to misuse of state secrets), populist protests have highlighted the divide between right and left in Korea, exposing strengths and weaknesses in South Korea’s nascent democratic culture.
At stake is whether Korea can undergo a constitutional transition of power while dealing with a challenge not only to democratic rule but to basic law and governance. In the midst of this turmoil, the historic alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea seems likely to experience change while a new government, reacting against a decade of conservative rule, seeks to pursue a less overtly pro-American stance. As president, Park was constitutionally immune from impeachment for anything other than treason. However, shortly after her removal from office, she was summoned to answer prosecutors’ questions leading to her indictment on 18 charges, including corruption and abuse of power. The scandal revolved in large measure around payoffs amounting to tens of millions of dollars that the chaebol had given to the foundations under Choi’s control.
In the struggle for democracy, one of the great paradoxes was the power of the chaebol, responsible for both 80 percent of Korea’s gross national product, and for the armed forces, tasked with holding the line against a rising North Korean threat. It was no secret that the chaebol dominated a deeply entrenched, culturally conservative ruling structure. In the face of a populist movement, the fact that the chaebol could exchange funds for favors appeared as an affront to democracy, a throwback to historical relationships in which government and business colluded while oppressing ordinary people. The birth of the chaebol goes back to Japanese rule when some of the founders of Korea’s great conglomerates got their start, such as Chung Ju-yung of Hyundai and Lee Byung-chull of Samsung . The chaebol-government relationship flowered during 18 years and 5 months of dictatorial rule under Park Geun Hye’s father, Park Chung-hee, who bestowed privileges and perks on favored tycoons, guaranteeing their rise free of competition at home and shielded by import barriers from foreign rivals. The chaebol formed enduring relationships with whoever was in power, conservative or liberal, including Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, progressive presidents who maintained close ties with business.
Anti-chaebol sentiment coalesced in 2017 around Lee Jae-yong, vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics and de facto boss of the Samsung empire. The case against Lee, indicted and in jail, focused on the donations that Samsung had made to the two foundations and to a Samsung foundation in Germany that had purchased a horse for Choi Sun-sil’s daughter’s dressage training. Prosecutors sought to show that Park had used her office to pressure Samsung and other chaebol to make donations. They believed that Samsung’s donations were bribes to get the government’s enormous National Pension Service to support the merger of two Samsung firms, in which the NPS held large blocks of stock, into a single firm with enough shares to insure Lee’s control of Samsung Electronics, flagship of the empire.
The case got at the heart of the relationship between government and chaebol, fostered and favored during the presidency of Park Chung-hee. The chaebol, severely criticized for discouraging small-and-medium enterprise, had become the target of demonstrators. Statues in grotesque effigy of Lee Jae-yong and Lee Kun-hee, and Park Geun-hye were common features at the candlelight vigils in which hundreds of thousands gathered on Saturday evenings on the main avenue to the Gyeongbuk palace and the Blue House calling for her ouster. Rightists countered in almost equal numbers, rallying around the Korean flag in weekly protests in front of the Daeoksu Palace opposite City Hall Plaza. Both rightists and leftists, separated by rows of police buses and policemen up the avenue from City Hall to Gyeongbuk Palace, claimed turnouts of one million adherents or more, but the actual numbers were most likely in the hundreds of thousands.
Extremists on the right and the left threatened to undermine and destroy the foundation on which democracy was built 30 years earlier. Young people complained that they could not get jobs commensurate with their educational background while the pattern of rapid economic growth of recent years shifted to slow gains often blamed on the failure of the family-dominated chaebol to encourage creativity while stifling competition. Conservatives blamed leftist labor unions for financing and leading protest while liberals and leftist feared that rightists, given the chance, would resort to martial law as in the era of military dictatorship. Opposition to conservative rule was strongest, as always, in the southwestern Cholla region, whose hero, Kim Dae-jung, had been elected president in 1997 at the height of an economic crisis that had forced the government to appeal to the International Monetary Fund for a loan package to keep the country from falling into bankruptcy.
Following the May 9th election, Korea’s relationship with the United States seems sure to undergo strains as reaction to the rigidly pro-American policies of previous conservative governments spurs on the quest for negotiations with North Korea, suspended after the last six-party talks hosted by China in December 2008. Park had shown the depth of her good-will by assenting to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the installation of a battery of missiles capable of shooting down an enemy missile 90 miles above the earth’s surface. American and South Korean defense teams rushed to install a THAAD battery, developed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems with other American manufacturers, in a golf course owned by the Lotte group, Korea’s fifth biggest chaebol.
THAAD has come to stand as a symbol of differences between right and left. Conservatives defended the decision of Park Geun-hye and her government, at American urging, to agree to THAAD as essential for the defense of South Korea against the threat of North Korean missile strikes. Progressives, after Park’s downfall, protested with equal intensity against THAAD, staging demonstrations outside the American embassy and elsewhere, denouncing THAAD as having been forced upon Korea by the U.S. They saw THAAD as deepening problems with North Korea while enraging China.
As protests continue to mount, might South Korea’s armed forces, fixated on North Korean threats, take the extreme step of intervention in domestic politics as Park’s father had done in his coup of May 16, 1961? Precipitous action against the North, besides inviting a counterattack on the South, might end a process of democracy in action against a regime weakened by corruption and incapable of dealing with widespread social unrest fueled by youth unemployment and discontent with the overwhelming power and influence of the chaebol elite.
The concept of democracy is relatively new in an authoritarian culture imbued with principles and precepts of Confucianism. Korean democracy is in transition: a time of promise, butalso of controversy and concern. The drama epitomizes both domestic and international issues, ranging from the economy to North Korea to the influence of surrounding Great Powers, notably United States and China, all accompanied by the cacophony of courtroom battles, demonstrations and threats of war. Shrill outpourings against a high-handed regime in a societyteeped in corruption have carried the seeds for reversion to dictatorship in the name of law and order. Optimistically, the protests, setting a precedent for lawful reform, have the potential for vastly strengthening the spirit of democracy provided they remain within the boundaries of a relatively new constitution undergoing its first major test.
 The author attended most of the Saturday demonstrations from November 2016 to April 2017.