South Korea: Mass movement scores big win as Park Geun-hye impeached

Protesters in Seoul last December celebrate parliament's decision to impeach President Park Guen-hye.

At 11.22am on March 10, Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Lee Jeingmi announced the court had unanimously decided to dismiss President Park Geun-hye. With that, after a 92-day trial, Park’s presidency was over.

Pro-impeachment protesters in front of the courthouse celebrated the verdict, filled with a huge sense of joy and a feeling of emancipation. On the other side, desperate anti-impeachment protesters were deeply disappointed, resorting to verbal and physical assaults, causing the tragic and unnecessary deaths of .

It was a historic moment. It signified a gigantic political victory for the millions of people who took part in the grassroots candlelight protests — South Korea’s indignados — and for those who led the 134 days of consecutive mobilisations. All together, more than 15 million people were brought onto the streets.

Park now joins the list of presidents ousted in disgrace, also sending nostalgia for her father’s time in power (Park Chung-hee’s 1961-79 reign) to the dustbin of history.

Princess is gone!

The final verdict conclusively ruled that Park, nicknamed “Princess”, was not fit to govern.

The judges pointed to Park’s betrayal of the peoples’ faith, her failure to defend the constitution, her refusal to cooperate with investigations against her and her repeated lies.

Some were disappointed by the fact that her negligence of duty in dealing with the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster — in which more than 300 people, mainly high school students, perished — was not recognised as a reason for impeachment. But supplementary opinions to the verdict did note that Park violated her duty to protect the lives of the people on board the Sewol.

For Park and her defence lawyers, the unanimous 8-0 verdict was a great shock. After the verdict was delivered, Park was said to be in a deep state of shock, as she had refused to listen to anybody and, right until the final moment, held onto her belief that the trial would be dismissed or the case rejected.

She was even more shocked by the unanimous vote because the judges of the Constitutional Court were regarded as mostly conservative and she had handpicked two of the court’s justices.

Park is obliged to immediately leave the Blue House (presidential palace). However, strangely, she remains there, having made no comments on the verdict nor clarified her plan to leave. Her private home is said to be unfit for her to return. This eerie, incomprehensible attitude has invoked more contempt among the still-angry people.

With her impeachment finalised, Park, stripped of legal immunity, is expected to be subject to criminal investigations on various charges, joining dozens of her accomplices on trial.

The state prosecution is expected to begin formal investigations very soon. Park had snubbed investigations by the prosecution and the Special Prosecutor, contrary to her own promise to fully cooperate with the investigations in her apology speeches.

There is no other option left but for her to spend time in jail, though some say the next president may grant her amnesty.

Ugly tactics

Ever since the parliamentary vote to impeach Park in December, reactionary forces have fought back. A mixture of far rightists, anti-communists, ultra-conservatives, Christian fundamentalists and others formed an umbrella coalition of anti-impeachment groups.

They organised a series of counter-mobilisations against the candlelight protests. Throughout the course of the impeachment trials, these anti-impeachment groups stepped up their mobilisations, targeting the Constitutional Court and the Special Prosecutor.

These extreme rightists unfurled the Korean flag as their symbol — and even US and Israeli flags. Reactionary protesters uttered outrageous, groundless condemnations, accusing the candlelight protests of acting under North Korea’s direction.

The organisers of the anti-impeachment rallies exaggerated the size of their protests, even claiming, with little grounds, that their Korean flag mobilisations were much larger than the candlelight protests. At one point, just before the final verdict, they shamelessly claimed 5 million people took part in their rally, even though it was obvious that less than 50,000 people took part.

This phenomenon is quite familiar for South Koreans, because these right-wingers regularly mobilise to counter anti-government protests with a view to covering up the government’s wrongdoings. They infamously ridiculed the victims and families of the Sewol ferry disaster.

The ranks of the reactionary protests were filled with conservative, poor old people, who were usually paid to participate in the protests. The South Korean chaebols (wealthy owners of global conglomerates), who were involved in bribery and corruption scandals, regularly funded such groups. The intelligence agencies are said to direct them behind the scenes, funding them from illegitimate budget sources.

In the course of the scandal, it was revealed that secretaries in the presidential office gave orders directly to these pro-government groups to mobilise and propagate misinformation. Their remarks and threats were so outrageous that even conservative media outlets were reluctant to broadcast them directly for it would have drastically diminished the credibility of those reactionary groups.

Some of the extremist thugs held a rally in front of the Special Prosecutor's home, threatening him and his family. And some extreme right-wing internet sites disseminated private information about the judges.

Furthermore, the misinformation operation was organised systematically, and fake news on the scandal and impeachment trial were widely circulated on the web. At rallies, copies of illegal newspapers full of fake news and threats were distributed in the tens of thousands.

In spite of hostile public opinion, the police were very cautious and slow to respond to these terrible threats and misinformation campaigns.

New election

As the presidency has been vacated, the constitution requires a presidential election to be held within 60 days, meaning South Korea will elect a new president by early May. However, the presidential race had already begun following the December parliamentary impeachment vote.

At the moment, Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), is leading by a large margin in most polls. Another DP candidate, Chungnam Province Governor Ahn Heejeong, is second.

Following the decision by conservative candidate, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, to end his bid for the presidency in late January, most conservative candidates have been barely visible. However, acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Gyoahn is currently the preferred conservative candidate, with somewhere between half to a third of Ban Ki-moon’s support.

A win for Hwang seems improbable however, given the overall collapse of conservative politics.

It is almost certain the liberals will harvest the fruits of the historic struggles of the candlelight grassroots. Trade unions and social movements played a key role in organising this historic struggle, but were just a drop in the great ocean that was the millions-strong candlelight protests.

Furthermore, progressive politics is only partially represented by a moderate minority party, the Justice Party, after the banning of the United Progressive Party in early 2015. The UPP was dominated by the pro-North Korea nationalist tendency. The Justice Party has six seats in parliament.

Structurally, the trade unions and social movements lack the organisational mechanism to intervene in institutional politics in general, and in the presidential elections in particular.

In the course of the candlelight protests, a coalition of trade unions and social movements attempted to raise a voice that was independent of the opposition parties by organising a grassroots civic forum.

The aim was to debate the meaning of the struggle and a grassroots alternative for a new republic. However, this initiative was unable to flourish and was easily sidelined by the mainstream media.

In this historic struggle, South Koreans have experienced another moment of political upheaval. It follows in the proud tradition of the 1960 April Revolution, the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and the June Uprising in 1987. The candlelight protests also revived the spirit of the 2008 protests against US mad cow beef imports.

The candlelight protests have put an end to conservative rule and expanded and deepened democracy. South Korean democracy has taken another huge step forward, in spite of the gloomy crisis of South Korean capitalism.

Liberal government?

It is highly likely that the heroic struggle of the candlelight grassroots will bring about a liberal government, which is a positive step after the poor performance and misgovernance during the last nine years of conservative rule.

However, Moon Jae-in and his liberal opposition have neither a genuine commitment to an anti-neoliberal alternative, nor the capacity to implement the radical reforms that the grassroots have hoped for in the course of this historic struggle.

The crisis-ridden liberal opposition are likely to win the elections, not because of their capacity and credibility, but because of the poor performance and arrogance of the ruling party. Only under huge pressure from the candlelight protests did the liberal opposition decide to pursue Park’s impeachment.

On the other hand, trade unions, social movements and progressive politics are dispersed and disunited after failure in the struggles against successive neoliberal offensives. Decisively, they failed to assert themselves as an alternative force, independent from the liberal opposition, during the candlelight protests.

Thus, though they played an important part in the candlelight protests, they failed to provide political direction or strategic leadership in the course of the dynamic struggle.

Though the candlelight struggle has won a historic victory and deepened democracy, the future is uncertain. Either this opening may close after the presidential election, or it may expand and lead to a broader and deeper struggle for real issues beyond democracy.

If trade unions and social movements learn the necessary lessons, they could lead this next stage of struggle. If not, South Korea may need to wait for a next generation.

[Youngsu Won is coordinator of the International Forum in Korea. Slightly abridged from .]

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