Impeachment in Seoul- the legacy of regionalist politics

Dr Ildo Hwang explains the scandal that has led to the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The smoke has nearly cleared. On December 9th, the formal impeachment vote for President Park Geun-hye was passed: 234 voted for impeachment, 56 against, two abstained, seven votes were deemed invalid and one member left before the vote. As a percentage, the vote was quite miraculous, 78% ‘Yea’ from a total of 300 seats was identical to the current public support for impeachment shown in a recent poll. So, it seems that the legislative body can (at times) reflect public opinion. But will everything to be a ‘happily ever after’? As usual, the situation is not that simple. Even to those familiar with South Korea politics three looming questions still remain.

Why did more than 50% of voters support Park in 2012?

Although a series of on-going investigations by journalists and official findings by the prosecution have revealed the darkest depths of the administration, even as far back as 2012, the basic tenets of the scandal were almost an open-secret. To explain why this was the case, we have to look back briefly into South Korean political history. Park Chung-hee, the father of Ms. Park and a strong leader renowned for his 18-year long presidency after the military coup in 1961, held two different personas. On the one hand, he was a text book case of a dictator who violated human rights and damaged South Korea’s civil democracy. On the other hand, through state-led capitalism he restructured South Korea’s economy towards export-manufacturing thus dramatically lifting the country out of poverty.

Although some would argue that this strategy saved South Korea, it also produced regional inequality; an industrialized Southeastern region and a neglected Southwestern region. This new divide was also subject to cronyism. As a Southeasterner, Chung-hee filled the majority of governmental decision-making positions with personnel from Southeastern provinces. So it was not strange when Southwesterners become increasingly more critical towards the central government, whilst Southeasterners were more eager to support it. Over time, this tendency cemented regionalist as one the most powerful variables in Korean politics.

That was how in 2012 and earlier, the conservative party enjoyed almost unanimous support from the Southeast, and the liberals reaped the same benefits from the Southwest. For most of the older generation in the Southeast, President Park represented the ‘good ol’ days’, symbolising ‘a poor princess who lost her great parents tragically’, and to some she was even seen as a ‘Joan of Arc who will save the country from pro-North Korean enemies’ hands’. These voters turned out to be her most robust supporters. Thanks to them, she consistently held a 35% approval rating in spite of the numerous scandals within her administration over the last four years.

Well, up until this one.

What made this scandal different from the other times?

The short answer is that people were much more angry. Just before the full scandal broke there was evidence that Choi’s daughter had received preferential treatment when she applied to one Seoul’s most prestigious universities. The university admitted her without the required grades and even went so far as to change the admissions procedures. To add fuel to the fire, the country is also experiencing a soaring youth unemployment rate and an overall dissatisfaction with increasing economic inequality. Indeed for young South Koreas, the immoral behaviour from the Choi family and the President’s puppet-like role in the scandal represented the worst parts of their democracy. It is little wonder why they took to the streets.

What happens next?

According to the Constitution, after the court finalizes the impeachment there will be a new election within two months. The current situation definitely looks quite favorable for the opposition or liberal parties, but, the aforementioned regionalist dynamics seem to still be alive even today. During the protests, many analysts suggested that this scandal would put an end to the conservative-Southeast alliance, but at least the majority of the ruling party didn’t seem to agree. The larger faction of the party, namely those who are ‘Pro-Park’ and were elected in mostly Southeastern areas, are still stubbornly and desperately obsessed with the party governance. As they see it, the longer the constitutional court takes to make a decision, the higher probability they have to establish a new symbolic figure for the election and restore support from the Southeast region. In that time, their votes of “Nay” on December 9th might be the salvation tickets for their political survival.

The power of regionalism and the generational gap has been so powerful that the cleavage still seems intact even through all this mess. Yes, this won’t be a happy end, but history moves incredibly slowly after all. Democracy is not an easy game, apparently.


Dr. Ildo Hwang is Research Fellow with The Institute 21 For Peace Studies, The Dong-A Ilbo Media Group in South Korea. He has worked as Staff Reporter with The Dong-A Ilbo for 16 years, and his major coverage as a journalist was North Korean issues, the United States Forces in Korea, and security policy making process of the Blue House, Korean military and intelligence agencies.