Candle revolution? People real force behind South Korea’s impeachment
December 11, 2016
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to impeach scandal-ridden President Park Geun-hye, but it was the millions of people wielding nothing but candles who really forced her from power.
Park was suspended and interim power was handed over to the prime minister Friday after the National Assembly bowed to pressure from weeks of mass protests calling for her ouster.
The case now goes to the Constitutional Court, which will have up to 180 days to make a final ruling on whether to unseat her and hold early elections.
It was a stunning outcome to a saga that began in late October as revelations emerged that Park, 64, had allowed a longtime friend — the daughter of a dead religious cult leader — to wield undue influence over her decisions and speeches.
The crowds again filled Seoul’s historic Gwanghwamun Square on Saturday, celebrating the impeachment vote but also warning their job was not done. Many chanted calls for Park to step down immediately instead of waiting for the protracted legal process to play out.
“It’s just a first step. This is the power of the people,” Lee Dong-soo, 43, said as he stood with tears in his eyes near a memorial for the victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that was blamed on government lapses.
“She must resign. We need to keep pushing,” he added.
In the beginning, opposition leaders appeared content to take advantage of the public outrage to limit Park’s authority as a lame duck since she only had about 15 months left in her single five-term anyway. There is no clear favorite candidate to replace her.
The president, meanwhile, tried to do damage control with three televised public apologies for a lack of judgment and an offer to step down in the spring if the legislature could agree on a smooth transition of power.
But each step only fueled the public anger, and hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered for rallies that swelled in size each Saturday night since Oct. 29 in what has been dubbed by some media as the “candle revolution.”
Finally, opposition lawmakers and even many members of the ruling Saenuri Party joined the calls for her resignation, then moved for impeachment when she refused.
“The politicians seem to have realized they need to follow and take the lead in the desire for changes of the times,” said Lee Sincheol of the Center for East Asian History at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University.
The motion to impeach was endorsed by 234 lawmakers, well past the 200 needed to approve the bill in the 300-member parliament.
Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn appealed for stability as he became interim leader, including commander-in-chief of the military, at a time of heightened tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
“Humbly upholding the will of the people, I will run state affairs in a correct and transparent manner,” he said. “Above all, the government will strive to maintain rock-solid security readiness.”
Government officials scrambled to minimize any vacuum of power as the country also faces uncertainty over U.S. relations with President Barack Obama’s administration coming to an end.
Defense Minister Han Min-koo ordered the military to tighten vigilance amid fears that North Korea could try to take advantage of the crisis and stage a provocation.
“North Korea could raise military tension in an attempt to worsen the political crisis in the South and test President-elect Donald Trump, as Pyongyang has no idea of his policy toward the North,” Han said, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se ordered diplomats in overseas missions to reassure their host countries that Seoul maintains its foreign policy lines.
Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho predicted Sunday the impeachment will have a limited impact on financial markets.
“The economy is faced with an array of uncertainties, including a U.S. rate hike and policy shifts in the new U.S. government, but we will manage the economy by maintaining economic policies in a consistent manner,” he told reporters.
Park has acknowledged letting Choi help edit some of her speeches but has denied any wrongdoing and refused to meet with prosecutors investigating the scandal.
Prosecutors have accused Park of conspiring with Choi in efforts to extort millions of dollars from South Korea’s largest companies.
The constitution provides the president with immunity from criminal charges. Lawyer Park Sang Yung said she would lose that immunity only after she is officially removed from power.
Prosecutors said Sunday they have indicted a former senior Park adviser for allegedly working with her in an unsuccessful attempt to elicit the resignation of a vice chairman of a conglomerate, and a former vice culture minister for allegedly colluding with Choi and her niece to force companies to donate to a sports foundation established by the niece.
Roh Moo-hyun is the only other South Korean president to face an impeachment vote, in 2004 on allegations of incompetence and violations of election laws. He was reinstated by the Constitutional Court and served out the rest of his term.
That is seen as less likely in Park’s case because of the mass public pressure against her.
South Korea has a tradition of violent riots with police firing tear gas and students lobbing Molotov cocktails. Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters were massacred in the 1980 Gwangju uprising.
But the recent rallies — the largest since the 1987 movement that ushered in democracy after decades of dictatorship — have remained largely peaceful. Many people brought along their children and danced in the streets as pop stars sang anti-Park songs.
Some 25,000 riot police were deployed and buses were used to barricade the streets leading to the Blue House, but the officers were reportedly ordered to avoid confrontations.
Lee Sincheol, the historian, said South Koreans have turned a page.
“The current rallies show that the era of attempts to change things by using direct physical force is over,” he said. “Rather, people seem to be trying to change things through law and order, and parliamentary democracy.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.