In the latest turn of events connected to the impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun Hye, investigators sought a warrant for the arrest of Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-yong. On Thursday, the court denied the warrant, citing insufficient reason for the arrest. Though Lee will go free, the incident highlights South Korean concerns over the close relationship between the government and the country’s largest companies.
The acting chairman of South Korea’s largest company was wanted for his connections to the bribery and corruption scandal that has unraveled the South Korean presidency. It began when Park’s long-time confidante Choi Soon-sil was found to have received bribes from South Korean companies routed through nonprofit organizations she owned, in exchange for government favors. The investigation into the scale of the corruption has brought about Park’s impeachment and exposed cracks in South Korea’s liberal democracy.
Like many countries, South Korea’s transition to liberal democracy has not been a smooth one.
Since it declared independence in 1948, the Republic of Korea, now in its sixth iteration, has shifted between democracy and authoritarian rule. The most recent and long-lasting shift to liberal democracy began in 1980 when an anti-government student protest against authoritarian rule in the city of Gwangju resulted in clashes with military forces and led to the deaths of between 200 and 2000 protestors. Distrust of the authoritarian government, installed in a coup d’état, simmered for eight years until the legislature had the influence to demand direct presidential elections. In 1987, the country’s first democratically elected president in 16 years entered office, and the Sixth Republic began based on a revised constitution.
Despite the reforms that brought about the Sixth Republic, democratic progress is not guaranteed. Freedom House in 2011 labeled the country as “partly free” because of government press restrictions. In The Economist’s 2015 ranking of world democracy—the most recent year available, South Korea was listed as a “flawed democracy.” It is unclear whether the exposure of the presidential scandal on the one hand and the effect of massive civil protests in bringing about her impeachment on the other indicate a democracy in peril or demonstrate the power of civic engagement.
Adding to the strain on South Korean democracy is the influence of “chaebol,” massive family-owned conglomerates with strong historical ties to the government. As of 2013, the five largest chaebols accounted for 57 percent of South Korea’s GDP, with Samsung, the largest, claiming as much as 20 percent. These companies, which were instrumental to South Korea’s meteoric economic rise of the 1970s and 1980s, are also at times guilty of collusion with the government, as shown by the prosecution’s investigation into Lee’s involvement in the scandal.
Additionally, chaebols and the government have cooperated on policy that has restricted the growth of South Korea’s entrepreneurs. Correcting this issue was an unfulfilled campaign promise of Park’s, and contributed to her low favorability even before the impeachment. A part of strengthening South Korea’s democracy would be reducing the influence of the chaebols and improving economic equality.
With the outcome of the impeachment now in the hands of the Constitutional Court, running the country has been left to the caretaker government headed by Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. During this time, important policy decisions and initiatives will likely be put on hold until the permanent president —an exonerated Park or a newly elected president— takes office. Regardless of whether Park is removed from office, elections are set for this year; it is only a question of when.
The field of presidential candidates is large. A fractured conservative Saenuri party and several strong liberal candidates from the Democratic party have split the votes for the two major parties and provided an opportunity for progressive candidates (one of whom styles himself as the Bernie Sanders of South Korea) from smaller parties to make a bigger splash. With the impeachment fresh in voters’ minds, every candidate will likely have a message that aims to restore voters’ trust in the government.
If an opposition candidate replaces Park “we may expect to see some serious changes or repeals on a wide variety of policies, or at least a close examination of the decisions that were made during the Park Administration,” according to Cipher Brief expert and Seoul National University Professor Park Won-ho. Chief among these policies is the decision to cooperate with the United States on deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense system, also known as THAAD, as a hedge against the North Korean missile threat. The decision is publicly unpopular in South Korea, politically polarizing, and has become a hot topic in the emerging presidential campaign. Conservative presidential candidates, such as former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, intend to go ahead with the deployment, but the liberal candidates want to reverse the decision.
The public’s outcry against the scandal and corruption linked to Park continues. Every Saturday evening, protestors still gather in downtown Seoul and other major cities to demonstrate against her. At such a high watermark for public displeasure with the government, this election could prove to be one of the most important in South Korea’s history. Will voters choose a candidate that can build on democratic reforms?
Will Edwards is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.