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  • Eric Lim

Will South Korea Impeach Its President (Again)?

In the fall of 2016, mass protests raged throughout South Korea. Starting in October 2016, an avalanche of news reports revealed that President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former dictator who ruled South Korea from 1961 to 1979, had taken part in multiple corruption schemes that implicated the country’s biggest conglomerates such as Samsung. At the same time, the public came to learn that Park had been influenced, if not manipulated, for years by a Rasputin-like woman named Choi Soon-sil who had dictated Park’s policies, speeches, and even the choice of clothes. 

Between October 2016 and March 2017, millions of Koreans took to the streets, week after week, in the midst of the frigid Korean winter (cumulatively, over 16 million people ended up participating in the protests calling for Park’s impeachment). Soon, the prosecutors went after Park, and the National Assembly voted to impeach her, later upheld by the Constitutional Court in March 2017, which concluded what is now known as the Candlelight Revolution.

President Yoon Suk Yeol and the First Lady, Kim Keon-hee

Yoon Suk Yeol’s Troubled Presidency

In a twist of fate, one of the prosecutors that investigated Park, Yoon Suk Yeol, now finds himself in the very shoes of the woman that he helped impeach. After rising to political stardom in 2019 as the foil to the then progressive president, Moon Jae-in, Yoon was elected president in 2022 as the conservatives’ candidate. Yet, though it has been hardly 2 years since he entered office, he is already facing the specter of impeachment. 

Yoon’s presidency is beset on all fronts. The two pillars of the South Korean economy, exports and the real estate market, are both tumbling. Relations with China and North Korea is at a historical low, owing to Yoon’s hard pivot to the U.S.-Japan coalition. Most of all, Yoon is embroiled in several corruption scandals, in which his wife, Kim Keon-hee, stands at the eye of the storm. 

Kim Keon-hee’s life story is nothing short of colorful, with an alleged past as a call girl and affairs with multiple prosecutors and businessmen. And she has been causing trouble for Yoon even before he was elected president. Just 3 months before the presidential election in 2022, it became known that Kim had faked her educational and professional credentials for years. A month after that, a news outlet called Voice of Seoul released 7 hours of recordings of conversations with her, in which she made a number of eyebrow-raising remarks, such as that liberal politicians are hounded by MeToo accusations only because they don’t pay the victims enough, unlike the conservatives, or that her husband is a “fool…who can’t do anything without her.”

Moreover, if corruption was Park Geun-hye’s ticking time bomb that blasted her presidency in 2017, Kim herself has left a long trail of fraud, insider trading, and corruption. For instance, in July 2023, the so-called Yangpyeong highway scandal came into the public’s view, in which, just a month after Yoon was elected president, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport scrapped a proposed highway plan without explanation and drew plans for a new highway near several real estate holdings in Yangpyeong County owned by Kim and her family, which could earn them a potential windfall of millions of dollars. 

In another case, in 2023, Kim’s mother was sentenced to one year in prison for forgery and inflating her account balances by nearly $30 million, which the Supreme Court upheld last November. Kim and her mother are also accused of insider trading and manipulating the stock price of a public company called Deutsch Motors between 2010 and 2012. The prosecutors have neither investigated nor indicted Kim, although the other conspirators have already been convicted and the prosecutors themselves disclosed a new finding in January that Kim and her mother gained a profit of roughly $2 million from trading Deutch Motors stock between 2009 and 2011.  

Kim’s latest scandal involves a $2,200 Dior pouch. In December, Voice of Seoul, the same outlet that released the 7 hour-long recordings of Kim before the 2022 election, released a spycam recording of Kim, in which she accepts a bribe from a pastor in the form of a $2,200 Dior pouch, which has since captured the headlines in Korea and caused dismay and infighting among the conservatives.

Yoon and the Backslide to Authoritarianism

Talks of impeachment started already in 2022, just a few months after Yoon came into office. With corruption scandals and economic troubles aside, what frightens the opposition the most is that Yoon has been reviving much of South Korea’s dark authoritarian past (South Korea was under a series of dictatorships from 1948 until 1987). State control of the media and the Red Scare are two ritmus tests of how democratic or authoritarian a president is in South Korea, and Yoon scores exceedingly high in both tests. 

Since Day 1 of his presidency, Yoon has been clamping down on all media outlets that voice even the slightest criticism against his administration. The Yoon administration regularly fines media outlets, sends prosecutors to raid the homes of journalists, pushes for the privatization of news stations, and brands the liberal media as fake news. 

Meanwhile, Yoon and his ministers regularly take to branding liberals and the opposition as communists. On Liberation Day last year, which on August 15 is considered one of the most important holidays in South Korea, Yoon made extraordinary remarks, such as “still rampant are anti-state forces that blindly follow communist totalitarianism” and the “forces of communist totalitarianism have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists.” The Red Scare was a long-favored weapon of past dictatorship regimes for discrediting, prosecuting, and even executing political rivals and democratic activists. Given that the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, a Red Scare may seem anachronistic to outside observers, but Yoon still clings onto it, particularly against the opposition leader, Lee Jae-myung, who was stabbed in the neck by a right-wing terrorist in a near-death assassination attempt in January.

April 10: The Parliamentary Election

All eyes are now on the parliamentary election taking place on April 10. The liberals, including Lee Jae-myung’s Democratic Party, currently hold 182 out of 300 seats in the National Assembly. The polls look grim for the conservatives. There are conjectures that the Democrats could even win up to 200 seats in this election, which would send a tidal wave through Korean politics, since 200 seats would not only give them enough seats to bypass presidential vetoes but even amend the constitution. With 200 seats, the Democrats may not even need to impeach Yoon, as they can simply amend the Constitution (which itself is long overdue) and curtail Yoon’s term as president in the process.  

Lee Jae-myung: Head of the Democratic Party

In another parallel to Park Geun-hye, Yoon faces dissension within his own party, the People Power Party. Yoon is a newcomer to the PPP, as he was unaffiliated with any political party for most of his life. In fact, it was the progressive president, Moon Jae-In, who elevated Yoon to prosecutor general in 2019 and to national recognition. Yet, since Yoon joined the PPP, he and other former prosecutors have been pushing out traditional conservative politicians and replacing them with their own people, which has been ratcheting up tension within the PPP, as South Korea heads toward a parliamentary election on April 10.

A key reason that Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2017 was because a minority faction within the PPP (then called the Saenuri party) defected and joined the Democrats in impeaching her. Similarly, the more Yoon provokes traditional conservatives, the more plausible it seems that Yoon could follow the same path as Park. 


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