November 26, 2016 7:00 am JST
David S. Lee

South Korea's Park can pull through

South Korean President Park Geun-hye is under siege as the scandal centered on her relationship with her friend Choi Soon-sil metastasizes through the upper echelons of business, education and government.

Labeled a possible criminal accomplice by prosecutors, Park's mandate is in tatters, with her public approval rating hovering around 5% and hundreds of thousands protesting to demand her resignation weekly. The specter of impeachment looms too, with opposition parties and some members of her own Saenuri Party calling for her removal. An impeachment vote may occur as early as the first half of December.

Despite such mounting pressure, all signs indicate that Park has no intention of stepping down. Moreover, Park will not easily be forced out of office prematurely, and at this point still could serve out her term given underlying structural factors that will shape the outcome of the current effort.

South Korea's next presidential election is scheduled to be held late next year, with the new president to be inaugurated the following February and Park barred from running again. With effectively only a year remaining in her term, Park may be seeking to salvage whatever legacy she can.

Having essentially served as first lady after her mother was killed during the presidency of her father, Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye considers herself a patriot who has devoted much of her life to serving the country. If former presidents who were corrupt and self-interested still finished their terms, what might that imply about her legacy if she is unable to complete hers?

Since the South Korean constitution does not permit a sitting president to be charged with a criminal offense, except in cases of insurrection or treason, Park cannot be charged now. She will, however, remain the focus of prosecutors and could be charged at the end of her presidency when her immunity expires.

With Park reluctant to step down and prosecutors prevented from charging her, calls for impeachment have been mounting. The impeachment process would begin in the National Assembly and ultimately require backing from two-thirds of its 300 members. Support from some Saenuri legislators would be needed to reach this threshold.

Though the single largest party in the National Assembly, Saenuri has been divided between Park loyalists and hostile factions. Consequently, due to public pressure and the party's fractured state, there could be party defectors who would support impeachment. Initial estimates indicate that enough Saenuri members support impeachment to allow it to pass. Voting is anonymous, however, so there is a possibility that some lawmakers may not follow through.

Two high-profile members recently resigned from Saenuri, calling for the creation of a new party separate from Park and backing her impeachment. Former Saenuri leader Kim Moo-sung has also voiced his support for impeachment.

Some are watching to see whether United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will turn his attention to South Korean politics when he finishes his term at the end of the year. Frequently associated with Saenuri, Ban's possible emergence on the domestic scene would impact an already fluid situation.

If impeachment passes the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court of Korea will conduct a judicial review, which could take up to six months. At least six of nine justices must vote to uphold impeachment for it to go forward.

Impeachment, then, would likely require more than half a year between National Assembly procedures and the subsequent judicial review. If Park can somehow forestall the commencement of the impeachment process until early next year, then momentum is likely to wane as the new presidential election cycle begins.

Moreover, opposition lawmakers will be reluctant to move forward with impeachment if they do not see a high probability of success. A failed impeachment effort would guarantee that Park finishes her term and potentially weaken the opposition parties in the lead-up to the presidential election.

Additionally, some South Korean political elites of varying party affiliation likely do not want Park to abdicate because of uncertainty about who would fill the power vacuum. The constitution dictates that if there is a presidential vacancy, a snap election is to be held within 60 days to elect a new president, who would serve a full five-year term. None of South Korea's major parties could field a clear-cut winner at the moment.

So, despite the heated rhetoric, party elites, including those with aspirations to succeed Park, probably prefer at this point to keep her in office per the normal election cycle. Doing so will give them time to marshal their resources to prepare for next year's campaign while allowing Park to continue as a target of media criticism and public vitriol for the next year.

Park is a lame duck, and any plans she had for advancing her domestic or international agenda in her last year have been replaced by hopes for survival. Opposition parties may expect that keeping her around will weaken Saenuri, while Saenuri leaders are looking for time for damage control and for something else to knock Park out of the headlines.

This could come in the form of a fresh North Korean provocation or the emergence of tensions with Washington once U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated in January. While campaigning, Trump made clear that he wanted to alter bedrock aspects of the bilateral security and trade relationship. Unfortunately for Seoul, if Trump starts down this path, a South Korean president at the nadir of her power would likely meet him while poorly positioned to negotiate effectively.

An important collateral issue is whether any revelations emerge regarding what South Koreans refer to as the "missing seven hours." When the Sewol ferry tragically sank on April 16, 2014, causing about 300 deaths, Park's whereabouts were unaccounted for during an extended period. Some argue that any investigation into Park should include an inquiry into this period, speculating that her absence might have been linked to Choi.

The current crisis brings to mind two terms. The first is post-democracy. Attributed to British academic Colin Crouch, the concept describes countries which maintain democratic institutions but where a limited number of economic and political elites make critical decisions, thereby weakening such institutions and their importance. The second is kakistocracy, a word that has recently re-entered the political lexicon and means government by the least qualified. Regrettably, both terms appear apt descriptions for South Korea's current state of affairs.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.

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