Asia

Park Geun-hye: South Korea puts an end to business as usual

A supporter of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye reacts after the ruling by the Constitutional Court in Seoul, 10 March 2017 Image copyright EPA
Image caption The decision to force Ms Park from office has divided South Korea

On the evening of the decision to remove South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, Seoul felt - and sounded - like a political rally. Tannoy announcements boomed across the rooftops, with protesters screaming their delight at the highest pitch. The atmosphere was emotionally charged.

Earlier in the day, conservative supporters of Ms Park clashed with police, rocking a bus back and forth to try to turn it over. Officers just about managed to keep the vehicle upright by counter-pulling on a rope like a tug of war.

At smaller demonstrations held in support of the impeached president, protesters shouted that they wanted the military to intervene and declare martial law.

But the military did what militaries are meant to do in democracies and stayed out of politics.

It was announced later in the day that pictures of the president (who is commander-in-chief) had been taken down in barracks.

An end to 'business as usual'

Ms Park is the first sitting president to be pushed out of office for corruption. She is not, however, the first president to be found guilty of a crime. Every president except one in the thirty years of the democratic era has been besmirched by strong evidence of illegal financial dealings. Only one has not - but his sons were convicted of bribery.

So the ousting of Ms Park is a change in South Korean ways - a president has been confronted and defeated by a court.

In the past, many heads of the big conglomerates have also been convicted of serious financial crime - but the habit has been for the president to then pardon them. It remains to be seen if things will be different this time.


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The de facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong , is on trial for a string of corruption charges including bribery. His father was twice convicted of corruption but then pardoned. The younger Mr Lee is being held during his trial and, unlike his father, may receive a prison sentence.

So there has been a change in the way things are done.

Much of the pressure has come from massive demonstrations every Saturday night. The common sentiment is that business as usual in South Korea has to change.

Change brought about by anger

As more and more revelations of shady deals between Ms Park, her best friend Choi Soon-sil, and the company's most powerful men have emerged, anger has risen.

Even before her ousting, Ms Park's approval ratings were at rock bottom, though that did not mean that everybody, or even perhaps a majority, wanted her kicked out of office.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Supporters of Ms Park clash with police as they try to topple a bus near the Constitutional Court
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Ms Park's supporters scuffle with riot police on the day of the ruling

There was also a view that she might have been a poor president and she might have been corrupt - but that her corruptions were minor compared with those of previous presidents. And so this common argument ran, with only a year left in power, why not let her see out her time without the ultimate disgrace?

A louder argument was that her hands were dirty and she should be punished in the same way that ordinary citizens would.

What happens next?

There is a broader consequence to the removal of Ms Park. An election will be held within 60 days and the polls indicate a move to the left.

A left-of-centre government would be much more in favour of an accommodation with North Korea. It would not be happy with the current deployment of US anti-missile batteries on South Korean soil.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An election will be held within 60 days following the removal from office of Ms Park

Ms Park was stripped of the presidency the moment the chief justice announced the decision of the Constitutional Court, but she was allowed to spend her final night in the Blue House, the presidential palace.

It is not clear if she has simply defied the authorities by telling them she is not moving out until she is ready to do so - something her opponents say would be characteristically arrogant.

The Blue House is like home to her. It is where she grew up as the daughter of the military general who seized power to become president in 1961.

A destructive friendship

Park Chung-hee, the father she adored, was also the father to modern South Korea. He decided to industrialise, and dictated that the country's business leaders should do the job for him - a foretaste of the nexus of business and politics which was to undo his daughter.

So, think of Ms Park in the presidential palace on her last night, alone with her past. Her mother was assassinated and Ms Park took over on her father's arm as the president's First Lady. Then her father was assassinated by his head of security and she forged her own political career.

It lasted until the night of 10 March 2017. She is now Citizen Park - and ordinary citizens can face trial for crimes in ordinary courts. They also face jail.

Ms Park never married or had children - she was married to the country, according to her supporters.

For 40 years, she came to rely on her mentor, Ms Choi - to over-rely, it transpires. Ms Choi, who is also charged with corruption, was allegedly the recipient of the millions donated by conglomerates in return for favours provided by the president.

It is a friendship which has destroyed both of them.

Are things changing?

Friday's court ruling has split a country, but it is a triumph for democracy.

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