In South Korea, joy over president’s ouster — and hopes for a new era
Leadership change isn’t enough; Koreans want system to evolve as well
A crowd of South Koreans, jubilant at the impeachment of their president, Park Geun-hye, over a corruption scandal, took to the streets of Seoul on Saturday night to call for her arrest and imprisonment.
The crowds were much smaller than the huge candlelight rallies that contributed to her ouster, but the sense that this was a historic moment was clear. Thirty years after they protested to bring democracy to their country, South Koreans had protested to bring about the peaceful removal of a president.
“The Republic of Korea is a democratic nation,” people sang in the central Gwanghwamun Plaza, waving signs that said “Arrest Park Geun-hye” and “Go to prison.”
Some people took selfies in front of a replica jail cell containing cardboard cutouts of Park and the others implicated in the scandal, while others snacked on specially packaged “prison bread.”
“The power of the candle! Justice has triumphed,” yelled John Shin, a 29-year-old translator at the rally. A band played the Queen hit “We Are the Champions.”
But there was also anger that, about 30 hours after her dismissal and three months after she was suspended from duties, Park remained in the presidential Blue House, which is within earshot of the rallies.
“It’s not good that she’s still in the Blue House,” said Lee Ha-na, a 24-year-old Web designer. “I want her dragged out, because that’s what is right.”
Shin Tae-soo, a 37-year-old law school student, went further, carrying a sign that said: “Unemployed civilian Park Geun-hye is illegally occupying the Blue House. Park Geun-hye must immediately move out. The place she belongs is prison.”
Television footage from outside Park’s house in southern Seoul showed Internet servicemen and handymen going in and out, with a heavy police guard. But Park remained in the Blue House, and a spokesman said no date had been set for her departure.
The former president has not commented on her impeachment, with an aide telling Yonhap News Agency she was “in a state of shock” and “needs time to come to terms with what has happened to her.”
“She must have assumed she wasn’t going to be impeached,” said Cho Eun-ji, a homemaker at the rally with her 12-year-old son. “How could she have thought that?”
The Constitutional Court dismissed Park on Friday after finding that she had “continuously” violated the law and had tried to cover it up. She was implicated in a corruption and influencepeddling scandal that centered on her lifelong friend Choi Soonsil, extracting bribes from big businesses with the president’s knowledge. Now that Park has been impeached, she has lost her immunity from prosecution. Prosecutors had recommended 13 charges against her, including abuse of power and leaking confidential information.
The moment could mark the opening of a new chapter for the country.
Park was South Korea’s first female president and also its first president to be impeached. But many South Koreans see her departure as bringing to an end the top-down leadership style epitomized by her father, military strongman Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist but presided over an economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Park Geun-hye became the president because she benefited from her father’s popularity; people were reminiscing about the economic growth of that time,” said Ji Sang-wook, an entrepreneur.
“I would like to call this the end of the Park Chung-hee era or fantasy. Now people can open their mind to a new era,” he said. “I think South Korea has become a real democratic society through this process.”
Older South Koreans in particular felt sorry for Park, whose mother was killed by a bullet meant for her father, effectively making her first lady at 22. Then her father was killed by his spy chief about five years later.
Some former supporters of Park said their nostalgia was misplaced. “I used to like Park Geunhye, but I think I was mistaken,” said Yang Mi Hye-ja, who is 73 and was out at the rally with her anti-Park son and daughter-inlaw. “Young people know what’s happening now, but we old people were living in the past.”
There was visible support for the impeached president, however. Supporters calling themselves “Parksamo,” or “people who love Park,” held a rally at the other end of the main drag — separated by a large police wall constructed to keep the factions apart.
Those people remained defiant after the verdict.
“My heart is broken. There are so many parts of this that I can’t accept,” said Cho Cheol-hwan, a 56-year-old entrepreneur who was waving South Korean and U.S. flags, and one showing Park Chung-hee.
“Park Geun-hye did something wrong, but her wrongdoing is not serious enough to be impeached,” Cho said. “If your kid makes a mistake, you teach them what is right.”
With Park gone from office, legally if not physically, attention is turning to the next phase in the democratic process. Elections will be held in early May, and progressive candidates are already out campaigning.
But it won’t be enough to choose a new leader, said Park Jin-gyo, a middle school teacher. South Korea also had to stamp out the endemic corruption that had been so starkly revealed by this scandal, he said.
“Without reform, we will just have a different leader with a different face, not a different system,” he said. “We have to use this momentum and change the system.”