SEOUL -- The South Korean public has finally succeeded in removing President Park Geun-hye from office, with its outrage pushing prosecutors and even the country's highest court to join the effort. At the root of this populist movement is the nation's extreme meritocracy that has pitted ordinary citizens against the privileged few.
The Constitutional Court on Friday concluded that Park violated the constitution by allowing friend Choi Soon-sil to meddle in state affairs for her own gain, upholding the National Assembly's decision to impeach the president. "Her actions betrayed the people's confidence," the ruling said. This is the first time a sitting South Korean president has been forced out through an impeachment.
Opinions may be divided on whether Park's actions were truly a grave violation of the law. The justice system acted on the "heart of the people" -- a term used frequently by South Korea's opposition party and the media. The expression conveys a sense of justice that such phrases like public opinion or public fail to express.
The 1.5 million candle bearers who protected South Korea for 133 days will remember Friday as a day of revolution, said Choo Mi-ae, head of the leading opposition Democratic Party of Korea. The heart of the people, which first prompted lawmakers, then prosecutors, and finally the courts to go after Park, will continue to control South Korea from the shadows even after Park's removal.
The cutthroat competition that defines South Korean society has given rise to this public rage. In order to join a prestigious conglomerate like Samsung, candidates not only need a degree from a top university but also need to speak multiple languages or have other notable abilities. Youth frantically pad their resumes in hopes of becoming one of the victorious few.
But the struggle continues even after they score that coveted position, and many drop out amid intense pressure. South Koreans on average last less than six years at one job. Even workers at Samsung Electronics, the subject of everybody's envy, only last 10 years. In one poll, around 60% of respondents thought no amount of hard work would help them climb the social ladder. Only about 10% were so pessimistic two decades ago.
Part of Park's initial appeal was that she did not even let her family members reap the benefits of her office. But in reality, she was at the beck and call of an unknown businesswoman who wasn't even part of the elite. Choi's daughter also received significant assistance from Samsung to fund her equestrian career, and was given preferential treatment in her admission to the prestigious Ewha Womans University. Every detail of the scandal rubbed people the wrong way.
The disgraced leader's father, former President Park Chung-hee, gave special treatment to export-focused conglomerates during his many years in office. The conglomerates returned the favor by providing financial backing, with public-private collusion driving economic growth. He overcame various structural problems, such as a pile of bad debts, excess output capacity and excessive borrowing by conglomerates. Under Park Chung-hee, South Korea adapted to a burgeoning global economy by investing heavily abroad and promoting free trade, and in so doing achieved impressively rapid growth. But the country has failed to redistribute its conglomerates' enormous wealth to the people, and public frustration has reached a boiling point.
South Korean society is divided along various lines, like those between corporate behemoths and smaller players, between full-time and temporary workers, and between generations. The youth are losing hope as inequalities grow and social rifts widen. Even in a hypercompetitive society, younger generations can look to the future if they are granted second chances. But those rarely come in South Korea.
Safety nets are also lacking. Social welfare spending, such as on housing, employment benefits and health care, came to just 10.4% of gross domestic product in 2016. This trails far behind Japan's 23.1%, and is the lowest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Polls place former opposition leader Moon Jae-in significantly ahead of rivals for the next presidential election expected in May. South Korea urgently needs to foster startups and smaller businesses in order to turn over a new leaf. Using its conglomerates as a scapegoat may satisfy the public, but will not lead to a new model for growth.