After the impeachment, uncertainty reigns in South Korea

The impeachment Friday of South Korean President Park Geun-hye was welcomed by millions of people who had been protesting for weeks but opened a new chapter of uncertainty.

For one, a constitutional court is now deciding if the impeachment was warranted, leaving open the possibility that Park, who is now on suspension, could keep her job.

If she departs for good, the country would hold its next presidential election within two months, raising questions about whether Park’s ruling conservative party would have time to rehabilitate its image or opposition parties would be ready to field candidates. There is already speculation about a presidential run by Ban Ki-moon, the outgoing United Nations secretary-general.

Also in limbo are the futures of those involved in the scandal that led to Park’s unraveling. Her longtime confidant Choi Soon-sil — a woman who had no official role in the government — remains in jail on a variety of charges related to allegations that she accessed classified material and used her influence to extort donations from large business conglomerates.

Park is a suspect in the case, according to prosecutors, though she enjoys immunity in standard criminal cases as long as she remains president, even with the suspension. That is not the case for two presidential aides accused of abusing their power or a music video director who allegedly used his ties to Choi to win lucrative contracts from state agencies and private companies.

The prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, will now assume a caretaker role as head of state while the constitutional court decides whether to remove Park permanently, a process that could take months.

“Recently I’ve had the privilege of seeing the future of a mature South Korea as I witnessed your peaceful gatherings and the democratic way in which you expressed yourselves,” Hwang told the nation after the vote. “I will listen closely to what you have to say, so that your voices will be reflected, as much as possible, in government affairs.”

One things seems certain: Having discovered their power in the massive street rallies that propelled the National Assembly’s impeachment vote, ordinary citizens will continue to play a major role.

“The representatives heard the voice of the protesters,” said Lim Jibong, a law professor at Sogang University in Seoul. “They shouted, in one voice: Early retirement for the president. Impeachment for the president.”

Kyung Moon Hwang, a history professor at USC and a Korea expert, called the chain of events “a sign that South Korea’s democracy is actually quite healthy.”

“This is a form of democracy that you really don’t see going on anywhere else in the world, activism on a really large scale,” he said.

On Friday, six weeks after the scandal became a mainstay of media coverage, thousands of people gathered outside the assembly building to cheer the impeachment vote, which was only possible because dozens of members of Park’s own party turned against her.

Irony was in the air: Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, ruled the country as a military dictator beginning in the 1960s.

He ruled through the beginning of its economic boom until his assassination in 1979. Democracy eventually followed, along with the continued rise of South Korea as an economic and cultural powerhouse.

The country has since hosted an Olympics and faced down a severe economic crisis. In recent years, it has felt the pain of slower growth and anxiety about income inequality and opportunity for young people.

As president, Park Geun-hye was both helped and hurt by her father’s legacy. Her supporters were nostalgic for him. Her critics saw an authoritarian streak in her aloof governing style.

“Somehow President Park has become kind of a symbolic figure for everything that is wrong with Korea,” said Ryan Song, a law professor at Kyung Hee University.

“I call it the national pastime in Korea: blame the government for everything,” he said.

Park apologized three times before the impeachment vote, to no avail, and again on Friday.

“I want to sincerely apologize to the people of the nation for this large-scale national chaos they’re experiencing due to my carelessness and deficiencies, especially amid the security and economic difficulties our country is currently going through,” she said.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

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