By Kate Murphy
South Koreans have elected a new president, Moon Jae-in, who is a liberal. Here’s why Americans should care: Moon ran on distancing the South from the U.S., historically its ally, while proposing to re-engage with its bitter nemesis, North Korea. It’s a drastic change in foreign policy led by an explosive domestic scandal.
The election comes amid concerns over corruption, the economy and the country’s relationship with North Korea, and it wasn’t supposed to happen until December. So why is the presidential election happening now?
Former President Park Geun-hye, a member of the country’s conservative party, went from the presidential Blue House to the big house.
So how did South Korea’s president end up being ousted from office? Park was sworn in as South Korea’s first female president in 2013. Her popularity plummeted in 2014, though, after the Sewol ferry sank, which killed 304 people, most of them schoolchildren. Critics said she didn’t respond fast enough.
Then, in October 2016, news broke that Park’s longtime confidant, Choi Soon-sil, who didn’t have an official government position, used her relationship to pressure companies into giving tens of millions of dollars to two nonprofit foundations controlled by Choi. She was accused of siphoning off those funds for personal use.
State prosecutors would soon arrest Choi, but they couldn’t yet arrest President Park because of South Korean presidential immunity. The only way to prosecute her was to remove her from office.
As the political scandal continued, protesters gathered weekly to demand Park’s resignation. Park hoped to avoid impeachment after apologizing on three separate occasions, with the final apology asking parliament to decide how and when she could give up power.
But that didn’t happen, and in December, Park was impeached by the National Assembly. After the vote was upheld by the constitutional court, Park was officially removed from office in March.
No longer protected by presidential immunity, Park was soon arrested on a total of 18 charges, including bribery, coercion, abuse of office and illegal leaking of government secrets. She has denied the charges against her and is now behind bars awaiting trial.
If she is found guilty of bribery, she could face between 10 years to life in prison. But the newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, does have the power to free her with a pardon.
So while former President Park Geun-hye’s fate remains to be seen, when it comes to why South Korean elections were held early, at least you can say, “Now I get it.”