The Cho Kuk show took an unexpected turn after he resigned as Minister of Justice on Oct. 14. During Cho’s 35 days in office, mass demonstrations in favor and against him become common. Supporters gathered in front of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul’s Seocho-dong and opponents gathered across the city in Gwanghwamun. Supporters demanded reforms in how the prosecution does business, whereas opponents demanded his resignation and called for the impeachment of President Moon Jae-in.
Cho Kuk leaves the national stage -- for now -- as one of the most polarizing figures in recent Korean history. There is no middle ground. Supporters like him because he is close to President Moon and they believe that supporting him equates to support for the president. Opponents view him as a privileged faux-radical on the make and believe taking him down will help weaken Moon Jae-in.
Political polarization will ensure that the Cho Kuk show will go on even without Cho Kuk. Another issue will emerge, stirring massive street demonstrations as it gathers force. The intensity will accelerate in the runup to the National Assembly elections next April. That election will determine how President Moon finishes his term. If his party and other sympathetic groups win a majority, then he will be in a good position to push his agenda. If opposition parties win a majority, he will be a lame duck filling time until the end of his term.
The Cho Kuk show also raises interesting questions about the state of the political structure in Korea. The strong presidential system gives presidents the right to appoint Cabinet officials without approval from the National Assembly. Only the prime minister requires approval from the National Assembly. The prime minister becomes acting president if the president is impeached or can no longer fulfill his or her duties.
Because the National Assembly has no power over Cabinet appointments, supporters and opponents of Cho Kuk had little choice but to battle for public sympathy in the street. Appealing to their local representative would do nothing because he or she has no power over presidential appointments.
Interestingly, a similar pattern appears in local government where local executives are strong and assemblies weak. Local governments are also required to answer citizen complaints. The combination of a strong executive and response bureaucracy means that locally elected legislators sit on the periphery.
The Cho Kuk show helped highlight the weakness of legislatures in Korea. In parliamentary systems, the most notably the UK, legislators sit at the center of the system. People appeal directly to their elected representatives are the primary way through which the people express their opinion to the government.
The House of Commons continues to have difficulty passing an agreement on governing the UK’s withdraw from the European Union. This reflects that closeness of the vote in 2016 in which 52 percent supported Brexit and 48 percent opposed it. Parliament is similarly divided, and members of Parliament are responding to the wishes of those whom they present.
Support for impeachment and removal of US President Trump has crossed 50 percent in several of the most recent polls. This ensures that the House of Representatives will vote to impeach Trump. Voters in heavily Democratic districts have been pressing their member of the US Congress to push for impeachment, which explains why it has gained momentum recently. If support for impeachment continues to rise, Republicans may begin to support impeachment. The only question is whether enough Republicans in the Senate will vote to remove Trump from office.
The key to making legislatures in Korea more important is to shift power away from strong executives. Giving legislatures more power will encourage the people to express their concerns directly to elected representatives rather than taking to the street.
Mass street demonstrations have played a key role in setting reform agendas in Korea, but they are not deliberative bodies that reach toward compromise. Crowd size does not matter because it only represents the voices of the most polarized groups in society.
The core of a democracy is a legislature that is responsive to the will of the people. When the legislature forgets who it represents, then the people have little choice but to turn to street demonstrations. On the surface, the lack of street demonstrations appears to represent political apathy, but on a deeper level, it is a sign of a healthy relationship between the people and their representatives.
The dueling demonstrations in Gwanghwamun and Seocho-dong show that Koreans have an interest in politics, but that representative democracy may not be very healthy. Strengthening the power of legislatures will encourage citizens to interact more closely with their elected representatives.
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.