South Korea Impeaches President, But Political Drama Isn't Finished

Dec 9, 2016
Originally published on December 9, 2016 5:33 pm

South Korean lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to impeach their president, Park Geun-hye, who is mired in a corruption scandal and facing a criminal investigation. But the celebration of the impeachment vote may be temporary, as a panel of justices will ultimately decide her fate.

"A lot of attention and focus of the national media and public will be on the constitutional court," says James Kim of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank. That court has 180 days to decide whether to uphold or dismiss the impeachment motion.

Despite the uncertainty, there was mostly celebration on Friday. Outside the National Assembly, crowds sang the lines of the South Korean Constitution: "We are a democratic republic." Nearly 8 in 10 Koreans who were polled supported the impeachment.

Weeks of protests, with crowds numbering in the millions, added fuel to growing outrage over Park, who has served four years as president but is viewed as aloof and out of touch with the concerns of everyday Koreans.

"I am taking the voices of the National Assembly and the people seriously," Park told her Cabinet and prime minister after the vote, "and sincerely hope that the chaos right now will end well. I will face the verdict of the constitutional court and the investigation of the independent counsel with a calm and serene mind, according to the the process determined by the constitution and the law."

Opposition lawmakers were originally reluctant to bring up an impeachment measure, but after Park didn't step down on her own, her reluctance, coupled with swelling protests, spurred lawmakers to take action.

"The events recently have really activated a lot of people who previously wouldn't have shown up in the streets. This is one of the most historic events that we've had in the past 50, 60 years," says Michael Kim, a professor of Korean history at Seoul's Yonsei University. "There's almost overwhelming consensus that the impeachment was warranted."

Lawmakers voted 234 to 56 in favor of impeachment. The vote marks a dramatic moment in the political career of Park — the daughter of the late military dictator Park Chung-hee — and for her country.

Aside from being the target of public fury, Park is under criminal investigation in the messy scandal that led to Friday's vote. Prosecutors accuse her of conspiring in a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme, led by her close friend and spiritual adviser, Choi Soon-sil.

Prosecutors say Choi enjoyed extraordinary power to make decisions in state affairs, despite holding no official position. Michael Kim, the professor, says Choi is symbolic of a political system that can easily be gamed.

"The system itself generates these kinds of issues," Kim says. "The very famous Choi Soon-sil, who is currently in jail, in some ways, she simply figured out a better way to work the system in a better way than anyone did previously."

While Choi, the president's friend, is behind bars, the president herself is immune from criminal charges while she still holds office. She has refused to take investigators' questions.

"I think people are very happy with the decision [to impeach], now the next phase has to kick in," Asan's James Kim said.

Part of that next phase is a transfer of power. The president's executive powers, which include serving as the commander in chief of the military, have been transferred temporarily to the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn. In a nationwide address following the vote, he said, "The world is watching South Korea right now. Please, let's come together to overcome this crisis."

Violet Kim contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

South Korean lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to impeach their president, who is at the heart of a corruption scandal. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the Korean political drama is far from over.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Outside the National Assembly, crowds saying the lines of the Korean Constitution - we are a democratic republic.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: A reminder that people can power change in democracies, and they just did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUNG SYE-KYUN: (Through interpreter) Here are the results of the votes.

HU: Inside the legislature, speaker Chung Sye-kyun announced the tally of a vote to impeach President Park Geun-Hye. She's at the center of public fury over corruption claims that have gripped the nation for months. The vote wasn't close. Lawmakers went 234 to 56 in favor of impeachment.

MICHAEL KIM: This is one of the most historic events I think we've had in the past 50, 60 years.

HU: Michael Kim is a professor of Korean history at Seoul's Yonsei University.

KIM: There's almost, like, overwhelming consensus that the impeachment was warranted.

HU: President Park is under criminal investigation in the messy scandal that led to the vote. She's accused by prosecutors of conspiring in a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme led by her friend and spiritual adviser Choi Soon-sil. Prosecutors say Choi enjoyed extraordinary power to make decisions in state affairs despite no official position. Kim says she's symbolic of a political system that can easily be gamed.

KIM: The system itself generates these kinds of issues. And so the very famous Choi Soon-sil, who is currently in jail, in some ways she's simply figured out how to work the system far better than anyone else had done previously.

HU: Choi is in jail, but the president is immune from any criminal charges while she's still in office. She has refused to take investigators' questions and for weeks ignored calls to immediately resign. James Kim of the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute says the unchanging situation forced Friday's impeachment vote.

JAMES KIM: I think the people are very happy with the decision. Now the next phase has to kick in.

HU: Either way, the legislature's vote marks a dramatic moment in the political career of Park, the daughter of Korea's former military dictator. And for the country, which came out in droves against her. Michael Kim.

KIM: A lot of people have become politically activated. And so maybe in a - few years ago, this would not have been so many people out there. But the events recently has really, like, activated politically a lot of people who previously probably wouldn't have shown up into the streets.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language).

HU: There is celebration for now, especially among the estimated 80 percent of Koreans who supported impeachment. But the good cheer could be temporary. Two-thirds of the panel of judges have to agree on the president's ultimate fate, whether to uphold or dismiss the impeachment motion. James Kim.

KIM: A lot of attention and focus of the national media and the public will be on the constitutional court.

HU: In the meantime, the president's power was transferred temporarily to the prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn. In a nationwide address, he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HWANG KYO-AHN: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "The world is watching South Korea right now. Please, let's come together to overcome this crisis." Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.