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Park's best bet now is impeachment

Protesters carrying torches march in Seoul on Nov. 26, demanding South Korean President Park Geun-hye's resignation. (AP)

South Korean President Park Geun-hye is possibly the only president in her country's history to yearn for impeachment. With hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding her resignation, her own party edging away and prosecutors naming her as a suspect in a criminal investigation, impeachment could be a port in a storm. It could give her time to pray for public opinion to shift, protestors to tire or the courts to overturn the charge. But what happens next in South Korea's escalating political turmoil is a question that no one is asking and no one can answer.

What has become known as "Choi-gate" began in mid-October, when it was revealed that Park's longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, had used her ties to the presidential Blue House to bully 53 conglomerates -- including Samsung, Hyundai and SK -- to make roughly $66 million worth of donations to two non-profit organizations, possibly in exchange for favors. Evidence suggests that Choi edited presidential speeches, struck arms deals, ran the culture ministry, and helped appoint intelligence and financial chiefs, the prime minister and 21 vice ministers. Choi's late father, a close confidant of Park's, founded a religious cult, prompting allegations that Park had become a brainwashed puppet.

Park has tried to manage the crisis in several ways. After her relationship with Choi Soon-sil was reported in local media, she sought to divert attention by resuscitating the issue of a potential constitutional amendment that would allow presidents to run for a second term. The announcement was a transparent attempt to divert the attention of opposition parties, which had strongly supported an amendment in spite of Park's refusal to consider it. As the scandal erupted she suddenly described it as necessary. No one took the bait.

Park then cleaned house by firing aides and offering to step aside and let the opposition appoint a prime minister to run the country while she continued in office to the end of her term in February 2018. This, too, failed. She publicly apologized twice, and promised to submit to prosecutors' questioning; she would have been the first sitting president to do so. But the apologies were not accepted, and the questioning never happened.

Park has also tried to push through an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, and is pushing for the government to purchase land for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a U.S.-designed anti-ballistic missile system.

Both are controversial, GSOMIA because sharing military intelligence with Tokyo triggers anti-Japanese sentiment and alienates Beijing, and THAAD because its powerful radar raises health concerns. Russia and China fear it could be used to spy on them. Still, these deals would help to defend South Korea against North Korea, its bellicose neighbor, and would shift the focus away from Choi-gate.

The maneuver might have worked had the scandal not continued to unravel. After fleeing to Germany, Choi returned and was arrested and questioned. The staggering depth of corruption that has since emerged has enraged the public and united people against Park and her cronies, prompting huge demonstrations. On Nov. 26, after five weeks of demonstrations, more than 1 million people flooded downtown Seoul, forming the largest protest the nation has seen in almost three decades. Local media estimated nearly 2 million people nationwide braved freezing temperatures to participate in demonstrations over the weekend.

The protests have been peaceful and organized. Strikingly, they have centered entirely on Park's resignation, with little thought given to the sociopolitical architecture that facilitated nepotism and corruption. After all, many of Park's supporters saw in her the economic legacy of her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979, and voted for her out of nostalgia. Others backed her out of sympathy for a young candidate whose parents had both been murdered -- Yuk Young-soo, the president's mother, was killed by a North Korean sympathizer in 1974. These are understandable feelings, but hardly reasons to elect someone president.

A house divided

Part of the problem is that, as Abraham Lincoln once said, a house divided cannot stand -- and South Korea is a house more divided than most. Making common cause over any issue is a challenge.

"Democracy has failed to dampen the right/left ideological schism," the scholar Choi Jang-jip wrote in a 2009 paper. Echoing this, Se-woong Koo, editor-in-chief at Korea Expose, a news and culture website, wrote in October 2014: "South Korea is a deeply divided society between the right and the left, the rich and the poor, the old and the young. Unity is an illusion and nationalism erupts only when the nation suffers a collective insult."

In this respect, Choi-gate has been taken as a collective insult, and indeed, has united the nation. After the fourth nationwide mass demonstration on Oct. 19, prosecutors named Park as a suspect in a criminal investigation into Choi. The floor leader of her own Saenuri Party, Chung Jin-suk, said he would consider a motion for impeachment. Park's approval rating has sunk below 5%, but among people under 30 it has fallen to zero, according to a recent poll by Gallup Korea.

In the list of undesirable outcomes that Park now faces, impeachment is her wisest play. The opposition is unified against her, and enough Saenuri lawmakers have said they would vote for an impeachment resolution for it to pass. When President Roh Moo-hyun was impeached 12 years ago for illegal electioneering, the case went to the Constitutional Court but was rapidly overturned -- in part because the court decided that a president must lose the trust of the people to warrant impeachment, and the public at the time was strongly behind Roh.

Park does not have that ace in her hand. But her immediate resignation would not necessarily be a good thing for the country. South Korea's economy is hurting, and anxiety has soared about North Korea's intentions. Pyongyang has conducted 22 ballistic missile tests and two nuclear tests this year, and after Donald Trump's victory in the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election, many have expressed concern about the implications for South Korea's economy and security. Trump's remarks that U.S. allies should pay more for hosting U.S. forces and fend more for themselves have particularly rattled Seoul as well as Tokyo.

The nation needs a steady hand, not more boat-rocking. And yet such long-term considerations have taken a back seat to ill-considered power plays. Park revived the constitutional amendment in an effort to save her own political hide, but that does not make it a bad idea. Choi's fingerprints will likely be found on the THAAD and GSOMIA military hardware deals, but that does not mean they are not worthwhile (although if they are seen to be consequences of Choi-gate, they will be swiftly killed).

Highlighting their near-sightedness, opposition leaders said on Nov. 22 that they intend to push ahead with impeachment and worry about naming a prime minister to run the country at a later date. They are letting the emotions of the public pull them along like a runaway horse and carriage. No one seems to remember that being guided by emotion is how South Korea got to the edge of this cliff in the first place.

David Volodzko is a Seoul-based writer, and the national editor of South Korea's JoongAng Daily.

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