Americans have been understandably preoccupied with our orderly transition of power, but a key ally appears on the brink of disorder — at a particularly bad time. South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, has faced massive protests and cross-partisan outrage over a corruption scandal that has already felled her closest aide. The National Assembly has begun proceedings that could lead to impeachment, creating instability at just the same time as North Korea has become especially obstreperous.
Until today, Park had apologized for the corruption but had adamantly refused to leave office. That changed in a national address from the Blue House earlier today, in which Park offered to work with both her own party and the opposition to craft a plan for a voluntary exit from the presidency:
Relinquishing her previously defiant tone, Park struck a chastened note in her third televised address to the nation over the scandal, which has angered South Koreans and created a political vacuum.
“I am putting everything down now,” Park said Tuesday from the presidential Blue House, while insisting that she had not done anything illegal and had never sought to enrich herself.
“I put my faith in deciding to resign or shortening my term in the hands of the National Assembly,” she continued. “If the ruling and opposition parties agree on the terms for me to make a stable transition, I’ll follow their recommended schedule and procedures, and step down from presidency. … I hope that the nation will move out of this turmoil and go back to its original trajectory.”
Turmoil is the correct word. Time’s Charlie Campbell reports from the streets of Seoul, where outrage over corruption has broadened into a general protest over conditions in South Korea. They are growing more impatient with the pace of action:
For the fifth weekend running, crowds estimated from 500,000 to 1.5 million have thronged central Seoul to demand her ouster. On Saturday, hundreds of provincial farmers, many driving tractors, joined a demonstration that paralyzed the capital, shutting down streets spanning out from palatial Gwanghwamun Square. As they gathered, performance artists and traditional Yonggo drummers competed for attention beneath a seated golden statue of 15th century King Sejong.
Excited crowds held candles aloft. Looking on were squads of riot police, almost exclusively drawn from the 19- to 39-year-old age group among whom Park’s approval rating polls have sunk to a politically unprecedented 0%. (Owing to residual support among diehard conservatives, her approval rating across all ages stands at a paltry 4%.)
“We cannot wait even one day [for her to quit],” protester Cho Mi-sun, a 51-year-old teacher, tells TIME. “She’s not normal and too dangerous to rule this country.”
Needless to say, this instability couldn’t come at a more difficult time. The UN has finally decided to ratchet up the sanctions on North Korea, acting on a US proposal resulting from Pyongyang’s continued missile and nuclear-weapons development in violation of UN resolutions. The Obama administration got China on board to drastically reduce the Kim regime’s exports of coal — which almost entirely go to China anyway. Beijing announced that they want the new sanctions to “send a clear and united message,” but Beijing could have done this months or years ago if they really wanted to send a message to Kim Jong-un and his junta.
The new sanctions will, if the usual pattern holds, result in provocative acts by Kim. That requires a steady hand on the rudder, especially in Seoul, and there’s little doubt that Kim will take advantage of the wobbly status of the Park government if he can. That alone should prompt the National Assembly to work out a smooth and very quick transition of power to make sure everyone knows that the Seoul government remains strong and vigilant. Similar circumstances in history have produced “accidents” that cost lots of lives.