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Soul Searching in South Korea

SEOUL – The impeachment, and removal from office, of South Korean President Park Geun-hye on charges of corruption and abuse of power has rocked the country’s political establishment and divided the electorate. Not since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, rooted partly in the flawed economic policies of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, have South Koreans faced such an impasse.

It’s still too early to know who will succeed her in the Blue House (the presidential seat); a special election has been called for May 9. But this much is clear: with Park’s unceremonious departure, a change in South Korea’s ruling party is all but assured. And with new blood must come renewed vigor to tackle governance problems – from dirty money in politics to incoherent foreign policy – that have plagued South Korea for far too long.

South Korea’s current political crisis began in October 2016, when allegations emerged that Park had pressured the chaebols – the country’s giant family-owned conglomerates – to funnel huge sums of money into two foundations controlled by her close personal friend, Choi Soon-sil. Word of Park’s cronyism left many South Koreans feeling betrayed by a president who had vowed to lead differently.

Park, whose authoritarian style resembled that of her father, routinely disregarded basic norms of liberal democracy. She scoffed at the rule of law and separation of government powers. After being accused of corruption, she simply ignored calls to appear before the Constitutional Court to testify. Prosecutors have issued another summons for her to appear in court on March 21; it is still unclear if she will, even though she has now lost her immunity from prosecution.