from Asia Unbound

Park Geun-hye Nears Her Downfall

December 10, 2016

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Following weeks of tense political scandal, the South Korean National Assembly voted overwhelmingly by a margin of 234-56 on a motion to impeach President Park Geun-hye today.

In late October, the South Korean president was accused of letting Choi Soon-sil, an old family friend who held no political office, have a say in numerous government affairs. News of the scandal led South Korean prosecutors to investigate and brought out hundreds of thousands of South Koreans to the streets of Seoul in protest, calling for Park’s resignation.

Now that the people have gotten their way, where does South Korea go from here?

With the passage of the impeachment motion, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn (a Park appointee) becomes acting president, and the impeachment motion and evidence supporting it must now be considered by South Korea’s nine-justice Constitutional Court, which has 180 days under South Korea’s constitution to render its judgment on the case. If the Constitutional Court rules that the impeachment motion is valid, South Korea’s constitution requires that a presidential election be held to replace Park within sixty days of that decision.

The National Assembly’s decision to impeach Park became an inevitable response to public discontent with Park’s unwillingness to resign. The political paralysis that had enveloped governmental decision-making over the past month is likely to continue for at least the next four to eight months. During that time, Acting President Hwang will oversee the administrative functions of government, but will not have a mandate to make decisions on sensitive political matters. South Korea’s immediate prior experience with impeachment occurred in 2004, at which time it took the Constitutional Court sixty-two days to arrive at a decision to overturn the National Assembly’s decision, allowing Roh Moo-hyun to resume his duties as president.

The Constitutional Court’s consideration of the Park case will be complicated by a number of factors.

First, the terms of two of the nine judges are scheduled to end in January and March of next year; they will not be replaced, and six judges are required to uphold the impeachment motion for it to go forward.

Second, the scope of the impeachment motion includes items that are a subject of ongoing investigation by a special prosecutor, and the court may choose to await the conclusion of the investigation prior to weighing the evidence in support of the impeachment motion. 

Third, the Constitutional Court will likely face sustained public pressure to uphold the impeachment, given the apparent preponderance of evidence and Park Geun-hye’s low approval rating.

While the nation awaits the judgment of the Constitutional Court, public political activities will likely remain paralyzed. The damage done to Park’s Saenuri Party by the scandal is likely to be a catalyst for political realignment as various aspirants maneuver to form coalitions in an attempt to win the presidency at the end of 2017. New parties and new alignments are likely to develop as the main presidential aspirants seek to enhance their chances.

One unfortunate aspect is the very short time frame (sixty days from the time the impeachment is upheld) mandated by the Korean constitution to hold the election of a president for a new five-year term. It discourages thorough vetting of potential presidential aspirants while favoring established Korean political figures—which is the opposite of what the country needs.

South Korea’s management of both the economy and foreign policy will be hampered by Park’s impeachment until a new president is elected. The country’s political paralysis makes it potentially more vulnerable to North Korean provocations, but the situation also makes it more likely that the Korean public would expect a strong response to any attempt to take undue advantage of South Korea’s political crisis. The close military relationship between the United States and South Korea provides an additional source of support, but South Korea’s vulnerability and North Korea’s propensity to test new American political leaders makes the peninsula a particularly vulnerable flashpoint in the transition to an untested Trump administration.

A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

More on:

North Korea

South Korea

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Politics and Government

Corruption

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