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

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FI­FIELD anna.fi­field@wash­post.com Yoon­jung Seo con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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.”

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