The South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye at a plenary session on Dec. 9. She will be dismissed if the country's Constitutional Court concludes that she deserves impeachment.
Approval of a bill to impeach a president needs support from at least two-thirds of all lawmakers. The Dec. 9 bill was backed by nearly 80 percent of the chamber, including more than 60 legislators from the ruling party. In other words, the National Assembly, which represents the South Korean people, has overwhelmingly deemed Park unqualified to serve as head of state. It is an extremely serious situation.
President Park's approval rating has declined to around 5 percent and rallies attracting hundreds of thousands of people demanding that she step down have been held every weekend. The passage of the impeachment bill is inevitable considering that she has completely lost the public's confidence.
Park has been suspended from duty as president following the vote. While the Constitutional Court deliberates for up to 180 days on whether Park should be dismissed, the president cannot exercise any authority relating to national politics. During that period, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is supposed to act as South Korea's leader, but the prime minister cannot make any important policy decisions.
However, South Korea cannot be allowed to have a lengthy leadership vacuum considering the situation surrounding the country.
While the country's top leader is absent, South Korea will face difficulties building up good relations with the next U.S. administration led by Donald Trump. Concerns remain as to how Seoul should respond to any possible provocative act by North Korea. The prospects for Japan-South Korea relations, which have been improving since the two countries reached agreement over the comfort women issue late last year, remain unclear.
On the economic front, uncertainty in South Korea's political situation has discouraged companies from investmenting in the country. South Korean think tanks have begun to revise their outlook for South Korean economic growth next year downward, citing the political deadlock.
Seoul should be aware of its responsibility in the international community.
South Korea is now the world's 11th largest economic power, and is required to play a key role in stabilizing East Asia. A political vacuum in the country would adversely affect the regional situation.
President Park's rights in the court should be respected. However, as her term as president ends in February 2018, it would be difficult for her to regain her leadership position during the short time remaining even if the Constitutional Court were to reject impeachment. Therefore, Park should resolve swiftly to step down as head of state.
At the core of her scandal are allegations that she allowed her longtime friend Choi Soon-sil to intervene in national politics. News reports in late October that Park revealed the content of a draft speech to Choi, who has no official position, triggered a public backlash and caused her approval ratings to plummet. There is no denying that the scandal also sparked protests against Park's high-handed management style.
Park was elected president on a platform of narrowing South Korea's serious income gap and eliminating the social divisions this gap causes.
Nevertheless, once she assumed the presidency, Park never listened to her opponents' opinions. She even dismissed members of the Cabinet and high-ranking officials of the ruling party when they took actions that she did not like. Critics pointed out that her forceful management style reminded them of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee who took power through a military coup.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the democratization of South Korea. Now, it is completely normal in South Korea to choose a president and legislators through free elections. Nobody is worried that the military would intervene in politics. In this sense, democracy has completely taken root in South Korean society.
However, all six presidents since democratization in 1987 have been implicated in scandals involving relatives or close aides at the ends of their terms. Roh Moo-hyun even committed suicide after he completed his term as president.
Behind the problem is the concentration of power in the office of the president. A South Korean president is given broad power including compiling the state budget and submitting bills to the legislature. In addition, a president has power similar to that of a patriarch in South Korean society, where people have a strong Confucian sense of seniority. As such, those close to the president have been able to exercise influence on society regardless of whether they have official positions.
This structure has remained unchanged since the pre-democratization era. Such incidents had never been called into question because those in power forcibly suppressed criticism. After democratization, however, scandals involving presidents surface at the end of their tenures, as their influence declines.
While South Koreans welcome the latest move to impeach the president, nihilistic feelings are spreading in society. There is growing awareness that the president's broad powers have given rise to problems since democratization. People are apparently feeling that efforts to rectify such problems have proven ineffective.
If the Constitutional Court was to approve the impeachment of the president or the president was to voluntarily resign, a presidential election would be held within 60 days. Political maneuvering is already going on with this in mind.
The ruling party had proposed that President Park step down in April 2017 and that a presidential election be called for June. Although the president reacted positively to the proposal, opposition parties did not accept it.
Observations are prevalent that it is difficult for ruling and opposition parties to agree on the schedule of the next presidential election because the timing could affect their chances of winning. However, lawmakers should keep in mind that not only the president but also ruling and opposition parties have the responsibility to normalize national politics. Both ruling and opposition parties should cooperate in holding a fair election at an early date.