What next for South Korea? Optimism and uncertainty follow Park Geun-hye’s dismissal from office
Elections could be held as early as May 9 and complex challenges – both domestic and international – will confront whoever replaces Park in the Blue House
This was not supposed to happen in South Korea. It was too divided, too corrupt, too much in thrall to the rich and powerful who’d always had their way.
Four months ago, the idea that the country’s leader, along with the cream of South Korean business and politics, would be knocked from command after sustained, massive, peaceful protests would have been ludicrous.
Now Park Geun-hye, thanks to a court ruling on Friday, is no longer president and may very well face criminal extortion and other charges. The head of the country’s biggest company, Samsung, sits in jail, when he’s not in a courtroom facing trial for bribery and embezzlement linked to the corruption scandal that felled Park. And a Who’s Who of once untouchables languishes behind bars waiting for their day in court.
Watch: Park Geun-hye removed from office
This swift upending of the status quo has so shaken the country’s foundations that it has left people here a bit stunned. Now comes the hard part.
South Koreans will look to take their peaceful revolution – and the genuine sense of empowerment that many of the average citizens who took to the streets in protest, week after week, now feel at their accomplishment – and turn it into lasting progress.
Among the first of the many big, uneasy questions that linger over this enterprise: what happens next?
In the short term, at least, the answer is more politics, and of the lightning-quick variety. Half a dozen or so candidates will now scramble, over the next two months, for a shot at becoming the next president of South Korea. Elections will likely come on May 9.
The current smart money is on a liberal – Moon Jae-in, who lost to Park in 2012 and who now leads in early polls – but conservatives, though in disarray and currently viewed as toxic by many South Koreans of all political stripes, still have strong bastions of support in the country’s south, if a charismatic candidate arises.
The qualities of the next leader will help answer another fundamental question: Will the confidence that many won from South Korea’s version of “people power” last?
South Korea is no stranger to rapid, intense change. The country whiplashed from Japan’s colonisation to total war in the 1950s, to an economic “miracle” of rebuilding supported by a brutal dictatorship, to one of the world’s most successful democracies.
Zhang Baohui, professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, was optimistic about South Korea’s ability to withstand the latest upheaval.
“This will not lead to massive chaos in South Korea,” he said. “I am not expecting huge political turbulence in South Korea.
“Moon Jae-in is the front runner according to polls. If he wins, South Korean policies toward regional security and North Korea should shift away from the cold war approach. However, the political right will not vanish. They can return to power. There were left-leaning presidents in the past but they could be followed by the return of conservatives.”
Whoever leads will have an unusually strong mandate in what has typically been a starkly divided country.
“It’s better for South Korean society if she is impeached because the public is so strongly against her,” said Robert Kelly, a professor of international relations at South Korea’s Pusan National University.
“People were expecting huge protests over the weekend if she has survived. People were worried about violence, property damages, and the revolutionary situation. Now, this finally ended. It is a relief for everybody.”
Lee Su-hyun, assistant professor at Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, agreed.
“The court made the right decision because Park was abusing her power,” she said. “If you ask me whether impeaching her will destabilise the Korean peninsula, my answer is no. Regional stability is being affected by various matters including China-Korea relations, South-North Korea relations and of course the relations with Japan.
“These are not directly linked with Korean domestic politics. Removing her is the first step to improve regional stability.
“All of our attention have been drawn into domestic problems. That was the No. 1 issue in South Korean politics last year. I think this is one of the greatest moments in South Korea’s democracy.”
Additional reporting by Coco Liu