How South Korea's politics could get even more confusing

December 10, 2016


(CNN) The impeachment by the South Korean national assembly of President Park Geun-hye has not only sent shockwaves through Korea and its neighbors, but also caused great confusion. Nothing quite like this has ever happened in South Korea before.


The scandal that toppled her is the stuff of B-movie plots. President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the strongman who presided over much of South Korea's economic miracle, had formed a close bond with Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of one of Korea's most senior shamans The friendship began apparently at a moment of stress soon after Park's father's assassination in 1979.

    Breaking many security rules, she shared state secrets with Choi, who seems to have had a hand in writing some of President Park's speeches.


    The news shocked Koreans who demonstrated in the millions for President Park's resignation. But, aloof as ever, she held on to her office, offering only to resign if the national assembly so decided.


    In the end, parliamentarians instead decided to impeach her. The vote count of 234 in favor of her impeachment -- well over the 200 votes required -- means that many in her own party must have voted against her.


    At this point, this bizarre story takes an even stranger turn. The impeachment strips President Park of her powers, but not of her office. This can only be taken from her if the Constitutional Court upholds parliament's decision. In the meantime, her Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, exercises the powers of the presidency.


    As part of this political storm, President Park tried to replace Hwang last month only to be forced to reinstate him after her proposed replacement was vetoed by the national assembly, an incident that is unlikely to have endeared her to him.


    So for the time being, President Park is still formally in office but with no decision-making powers, with the country run by a caretaker. Unless she voluntarily resigns (there is no sign that she will, not least because if she does so, she loses her immunity from prosecution) this situation may last for up to six months while the Constitutional Court deliberates on the impeachment.


    It gets stranger. Nine judges sit in the Constitutional Court and the constitution requires that six of them uphold the impeachment for President Park finally to be forced out of office. But the terms of two of the judges will soon end (one in January, one in March) and in the current confusion, it is unlikely that they will be replaced quickly. So the judgment will in fact be handed down not by nine judges, but by seven. This means that, as the requirement for six votes in favor of impeachment is not changed by the judges' departure, unless all but one of the remaining judges support the impeachment (unlikely given their conservatism) President Park will be reinstated, probably some time in May.


    After all that has happened it is unlikely that she would at that point be taken seriously as president, whatever the letter of the constitution. This would mean that from May until the end of President Park's term in February 2018 South Korea would be ruled not so much by a lame duck as a dead one.


    Given the challenges the country faces (including provocations from North Korea) this would be most unfortunate.


    If, on the other hand, the Constitutional Court does uphold the impeachment, the constitution requires fresh elections. The South Korean opposition is in disarray and it is quite possible that a candidate from President Park's own party would be elected president to succeed her, which would probably mean a continuation of her policies, but without shamanistic guidance.


    For many of the Koreans who have demonstrated for her fall, this would be an enormous disappointment.


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