The day after the removalThe protests on the day after President Park’s impeachment took the most disturbing form. A large crowd gathered in Gwanghwamun Square to celebrate the unanimous decision for impeachment of the constitutional court. The protest resembled a carnival of celebration, but there were those who actively promoting other issues like the release of the black list, the removal of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system, the rejection of nuclear power and demands for more profound changes in Korean society. For them, impeachment is merely the first step in a more profound political transformation.
There was a line of police buses that blocked the boulevard. This time the police buses were not keeping protesters away from the Blue House, but rather separating the anti-Park protesters from a group of pro-Park protesters who gathered around city hall with their Korean flags (and some American flags) who were led on by rousing speeches in defense of President Park against what they perceive as a political vendetta by an irresponsible group who wish to lead the country astray.
The division of downtown Seoul into East and West reveals more profound fragmentation in Korean society, resulting in part from the growth of a superannuated society which produces a deep gulf in the basic assumptions about how the nation should be run. There are now unresolvable gaps in terms of what is assumed to be true concerning such incidents as the sinking of the Sewol Ferry, the actions of President Park and the imprisonment of the leftist politician Lee Seok-gi.
But this division is not the only one in Korea. The nation has been tragically divided into North and South for almost sixty years. That division also was in part a result of an unbreachable split in perceptions fed by geopolitical tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. And here we find after 60 years that a division in perception — rather than increased reconciliation —is emerging within South Korea itself. Impeachment is not the resolution of the problem but rather the beginning of a growing gap of perceptions.
Certainly, it is appropriate to follow up the impeachment with a complete investigation and trial if there is evidence of criminal activity. And yet if high-profile raids and the arrest of government officials, including perhaps former president Park, take place, we run the serious risk that rather than an objective consideration of facts, the entire election will become a political show. Those critical of Park will attribute all the evils of modern Korea to her and those who defend her will see the entire investigation and trial as a politically motivated attack.
I ask that we wait to start the investigations and trial until after the election and also I request that all candidates refrain from commenting on the case in detail until after the elections. The reason for making such a request does not stem from a desire to protect the former president. Any criminal actions should be persecuted to the full extent of the law. But such an investigation and trial should not be part of a political campaign.
The are many important policy issues related to the economy, welfare, Korea’s relations with China, Japan and the United States and also North Korea that are pressing and need to be debated in earnest as part of the election. If the focus of the candidates becomes the lurid details of the former president’s actions, those critical issues may be entirely ignored.
I must admit that I was rather put off by the reading by acting Chief justice Lee Jung-mi of the findings of the constitutional court. At first, she listed charges that the constitutional court had not upheld and for about ten minutes I thought that perhaps the court had decided to throw the case out. But then, when the dramatic tension was at its highest, she declared that President Park would be removed from office immediately. The crowds gathered in front of Gwanghwamun Square were ecstatic, no doubt because of the suspension created by the dramatic reading. But I was bothered. The court had an obligation to simply read the statement in a bland and boring manner, starting with its ultimate finding. To create a drama in the reading of its finding was more likely to result in greater divisions in the nation.
The greatest priority is creating a broad discussion in Korean society about the direction the country must go, which draws in the maximum amount of citizens and will generate a true consensus on priorities that will allow for broad implementation of reforms in the future. If the election declines into sensationalist and populist declarations about the former president aimed at winning the election, all Koreans will be losers.
As satisfying as it may be for some to punish the former president in public, if required laws cannot be passed and implemented as a result, the economic and social costs will be tremendous.
*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.