On Friday, President Park Geun-hye became the first South Korean president to be impeached
Euny Hong: However, Americans should not expect Trump to suffer a similar fate
Editor’s Note: Euny Hong is the author of “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World through Pop Culture” (Picador 2014) and “Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners” (Simon & Schuster 2006). She was previously an editor at France 24 in Paris, a columnist at the Financial Times, and a Fulbright Young Journalists Fellow in Berlin. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, is now also the nation’s first impeached president. The Korean Constitutional Court on Friday voted unanimously to remove her from office, and snap elections for a new president will be held within 60 days.
The subsequent media coverage is rife with comparisons between Park and Trump, claiming that the impeachment of the former augurs the same fate for the latter. Social media sentiment is similar, with tweets like “Your move, America” and “Next to go is Trump.” However, likening Trump to Park demonstrates not just wishful thinking, but a fundamentally incorrect assumption that democracy is the same in every country.
I have no great love for Park, but it’s hard not to notice that her impeachment is pretty much based on the Korean people’s hurt feelings. She is possibly the first president of any democratic nation to be formally impeached for being embarrassing, stupid and indiscreet, and not for hard evidence of graft, corruption or perjury.
In America, there is no way a president can be impeached for being embarrassing and stupid. In fact, it might be one of the only jobs in the United States where you can’t be fired for that sort of thing. And that’s probably a good thing; ruling by the people’s emotions might work in Korea, but it is not compatible with American democracy.
What Park did/did not do
Bribery scandals circled Park, but never quite touched her directly: The beneficiary of the alleged bribes was not Park herself, but her closest confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the cult leader’s daughter who reportedly liked to make friends in male brothels. (Though Korean prosecutors on January 25 indicted Choi for her role in the scandal, she vociferously maintained her innocence.)
It was an unlikely friendship: Park is a president’s daughter (her father Park Chung-hee served from 1961 until his assassination in 1979); she speaks five languages and has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. If she had wanted someone to review state secrets, she could have asked Korea’s best and brightest or someone who had security clearance or, at the very least, an actual government employee.
Yet Park was sharing classified information with Choi, who had nothing to recommend her except that her father was Choi Tae-min, leader of a shamanistic, pseudo-Christian cult called the Church of Eternal Life. The elder Choi had told Park back in the 1970s, essentially, “I see dead people.” He claimed he had important messages to relay from Park’s deceased mother.
Upon Choi’s death, his daughter Choi Soon-sil assumed the role of Park’s “Chief Mental Influencer.” For an alleged Svengali, though, Choi appears to be surprisingly lacking in charm, which makes their association even more inexplicable to the Korean people.
By US legal standards, Park’s impeachment is peculiar in that she was ousted before even being fully investigated. Even the special prosecutors making the case against Park reportedly claimed they didn’t have time to complete the inquiry and were denied an extension.
However, even if she had been clearly linked to financial malfeasance, this crime would have been secondary to the Korean public. After all, in Korea, it has historically been the case that bribery is synonymous with presidency, and some of her predecessors literally absconded with billions of Korean public funds. None of them was ever impeached, though several were prosecuted after leaving office.
Make no mistake: If there were more digging, it’s very possible that a dirty money trail would have led directly and indisputably to Park. But the Korean people and the courts were not interested in waiting. They weren’t even that interested in the money trail.
Park’s main crime was that she ran one of the world’s wealthiest nations based on the advice of a cult brat, who had duped her. Choi touted her closeness to Park to cajole Korea’s business elite (including Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, who was arrested in February) to donate money to dubious charities in exchange for implied presidential favors. Though a Korean prosecutor alleged that Park had knowledge of this – and she may well have – what is significant is that the impeachment was pushed through before the conclusion of the investigation.
Three deaths and 30-odd serious injuries were reported as having arisen from post-impeachment protests, but had Park not been impeached, a revolution with far more fatalities would have been inevitable. Her removal was probably the only outcome the Korean people would accept, and the Korean senate and courts knew that.
This does not mean that other democracies can impeach presidents based on annoyance and embarrassment, nor should they. Somewhat like the Catholic Church, democracy could only disseminate by adapting to the customs and history of the nations it entered. One of the chief areas of divergence lies in how a leader is ousted.
Democracy’s infinite adaptability
Korean democracy is very different from its American counterpart: The Korean democratic state is young; it was founded in 1948, and it has only been a truly autocrat-free democracy since 1987. That’s just 30 years. To play catch-up to Western democratic principles, it could only effect change through dramatic upheavals and revolutions.
Case in point: Korea is in its Sixth Republic, which means there have been six fundamentally redrafted Constitutions in under 70 years. That’s a lot of instability. France is in its Fifth Republic, but that’s over a much longer period, 226 years (their first Constitution was ratified in 1791).
Getting rid of leaders the civilized way only works in very old democracies. In the United Kingdom, for example, there is no written Constitution at all, but their democracy arguably dates back to the Magna Carta and is thus over eight centuries old. Common Law and precedent has, at least in the modern era, prevented chaos. For example, the UK institution of the “no-confidence vote” means there’s basically an expectation that a very unpopular leader should do the right thing and step down of his or her own accord.
But you can’t rely on that sort of gentleman’s agreement elsewhere. It wouldn’t work in Korea, because democracy there is too young and the rule of law is even younger. Nor would it work in the United States, which is ruled by its Constitution as no other country is. And what that means for presidential impeachment is that you need proof, proof and more proof of wrongdoing. This is the best possible solution, and those who wish for Korean-style democracy in the United States have no idea how dangerous that would be here.
In short, the answer to the following question, “Are you allowed to impeach a president for gross incompetence?” which Trump tweeted in 2014, is “no.” Not in the United States, at least. Like it or not, it’s the best way to prevent utter, near-apocalyptic chaos.