The end of October brings the first anniversary of the beginning of the “Candlelight Revolution” that led to the impeachment and removal of former president Park Geun-hye. The anniversary provides an opportunity to assess the events from the perspective of time. In looking back, three keywords come to mind: competence, accountability, and stability.
Park Geun-hye was not the most unpopular president when the protests began. She was the only president to be elected with more than 50 percent of the vote since democratization in 1987. Like her predecessors, her popularity had declined, and her party had lost seats in the National Assembly election in April 2016. But the decline and the scope of the loss were less than previous presidents had experienced. Her political base in Daegu and neighboring areas in Gyeongsan Province was largely intact.
The sudden drop in Park’s popularity came from revelations that Choi Soon-sil, a long-time friend and daughter of a cult leader, had helped the president write speeches. She also used her relationship with the president to gain influence and extort money from large corporations to fund her projects. The revelations immediately destroyed faith in her competence and fitness for office. This came on top of doubts about her competence stemming from her controversial response to the sinking of the Sewol Ferry in April 2014 that cost 304 people their lives.
Presidents in democracies cannot govern without a political base. As the candlelight demonstrations calling for Park’s removal grew, the collapse in her popularity destroyed her political base. When impeachment was put on the table, members of her party defected and voted in favor of impeachment. Shortly before the impeachment vote, her popularity was only 4 percent, a stunningly low number for a president who had received more the 50 percent of the vote four years earlier. Park’s quick demise shows that Korean public opinion is quick to punish incompetence in a president.
Removing a democratically elected president from office is ultimately a demand for accountability. The demonstrators wanted to hold the Park Geun-hye accountable for her incompetence. She had apologized to the nation several times, but that was not enough. The public wanted action, not words.
In upholding the impeachment decision, the Constitutional Court cited Park’s unwillingness to cooperate with investigations into state affairs as evidence of failing to uphold the constitution. The Court, like the demonstrators and the National Assembly, wanted to hold her accountable for her actions. In doing so, the Court reaffirmed that the president is not above the constitution and the law.
After impeachment, an election was held to fill the vacant office of president. The campaign was short and vigorous, but produced a clear winning in Moon Jae-in. The impeachment process and election were marked by great stability. From impeachment in December to the election of a new president in May, then Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn served as acting president. For almost half a year, the government functioned normally under the acting president.
The 1987 presidential election, the first direct election in 16 years, stirred strong emotions. People were tense, and the outcome was not universally accepted. The peaceful demonstrations and stable impeachment process show how much progress Korea has made in developing a stable democracy during the 30 years since.
Since taking office, President Moon has maintained high public approval ratings, despite having to backtrack on several campaign promises. He has done so mainly through effective public persuasion and an open attitude that contrasts sharply with the imperious attitude of his predecessor.
In matters of policy, however, President Moon has yet to accomplish much. His Democratic Party lacks a majority in the National Assembly, making it difficult for him to push a decisive agenda. This may change as politicians regroup with some joining the Democratic Party. If that does not happen, then the next chance will be the next National Assembly election scheduled for April 2020. That would happen almost three years into his five-year term.
Koreans have shown that they expect competence from their president and will hold him or her accountable for their actions. They have also shown that they respect processes designed to hold the president accountable.
To build on achievements of the “Candlelight Revolution,” Koreans need to turn their attention to local government where incompetence remains a problem. They need to demand competence from local leaders and hold them accountable for their failures. The next round of local elections in June 2018 is a perfect chance to do so.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.