On March 31, South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye, was arrested on corruption and extortion charges. Just 20 days earlier, she had been impeached in a historic unanimous ruling by the Constitutional Court. The majority of South Koreans believe that this has been a deeply disgraceful month for national politics; they could not be more wrong. Park’s fall from grace is a triumph of the rule of law and a post-partisan popular will, remarkable in such a young republic. Democracies everywhere should take note.
A soft-spoken conservative favorite, Park Geun-hye hardly seemed primed for such a devastating fall from power. She is the daughter of one of East Asia’s most remarkable leaders in recent history, Park Chung-hee. Park the Elder is credited with transforming war-torn Korea into an industrial and modern state. Though his authoritarian rule and alleged human-rights abuses have long been controversial, he is fondly remembered by the country’s conservative base. With a retro chignon that inspires memories of her late mother, a universally beloved first lady, and somber lips that calls to mind her father’s steely will, Ms. Park marched into the presidential palace in 2013 as though it were her childhood home — as, indeed, it had been, decades ago.
“She brought this upon herself” is a refrain that I hear over and over from Seoul’s denizens. Revelations of cronyism and racketeering that have been trickling out since last fall made for a story worthy of a political thriller. It was alleged that the president had been conferring closely with — and had potentially leaked state secrets to — an unelected, unknown figure whose father had been a shaman and close adviser to Park in her youth. The complex web of influence-peddling and extortion involved many millions of dollars, at least one gigolo, shady equestrian charities, and Samsung executives.
Besides the tabloid-ready gossip fodder, Park’s impeachment and arrest are remarkable for a few reasons. For months, millions of South Koreans took to the streets, making headlines the world over with extraordinarily orderly and peaceful protests. Much to the chagrin of Park loyalists, giant throngs gathered and disbanded with nary a piece of trash left behind, let alone violent incidents. In no small part as a result, the resistance steadily gained in size and moral authority. Furthermore, conservative lawmakers joined their progressive counterparts in large numbers to vote for her impeachment, leading to a Constitutional Court decision that finally ruled for her removal. Partisan politics are usually no less bitter in South Korea than in the U.S., but this process had truly been a rare display of ethics and the law trumping tribalism.
Observing the free, prosperous, and technologically advanced metropolis of Seoul, one can too easily to forget that the democratic republic that Koreans now enjoy is merely three decades old. Between 1953 (the end of the Korean War) and 1987, the country saw no fewer than four coups d’état, four major revisions to the constitution, and an 18-year-long military dictatorship, not to mention at least one massacre of its own people. The nation has been the envy of many developing economies, and now it can reasonably also be regarded as the envy of young democracies.
This is not in any way to sugarcoat the challenges that Koreans face today as their former president awaits possible conviction. Few in Seoul are naïve enough to think that putting one ex-president behind bars is enough to wipe out endemic corruption. What’s more, sluggish economic growth has long been feeding populist resentment, and the current leadership vacuum leaves citizens vulnerable at a time of heightened regional instability. Pyongyang is upping its bellicose rhetoric; Japan is strengthening its military with a resolve unprecedented since World Wwar II; and China is only too happy to strike a more defiant posture against the U.S.-backed regime every day.
All the same, the example of Park’s impeachment speaks powerfully. One can only imagine how North Koreans must feel upon learning, if news somehow leaked through the tightly state-controlled media, that their neighbors to the south just put their own leader behind bars. One hopes that, with a new president to be elected in May, Seoul will be a more effective defender of democratic principles in the region and ally to America. One also hopes that, at least for a minute, feckless leaders around the world learn a healthy fear of the rule of law.
— Simone Grace Seol is a Seoul-based writer and illustrator.
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