A leadership vacuum has opened in one of the more dangerous corners of the world, and at a very bad time. The National Assembly of South Korea has impeached president Park Geun-hye as a result of a corruption scandal that has expanded to the nation’s corporate sector. Park called for a Cabinet meeting in response while she waits for formal notification of her impeachment, but it could take six months until Park finds out whether she has to leave office permanently:
South Korean lawmakers on Friday impeached President Park Geun-hye, a stunning and swift fall for the country’s first female leader amid protests that drew millions into the streets in united fury.
Once formal documents are handed over to the presidential Blue House later Friday, Park will be stripped of her power and her No. 2, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, will assume leadership until the country’s Constitutional Court rules on whether Park must permanently step down.
Park did not immediately comment, but she convened a Cabinet meeting for later Friday where she was expected to speak publicly. The hand-over of power prompted the prime minister to order South Korea’s defense minister to put the military on a state of heightened readiness to brace for any potential provocation by North Korea. No suspicious movements by the North were reported, however.
“I heard grave voices of the people and the National Assembly, and I sincerely hope this chaotic situation will be resolved soon,” Park told a cabinet meeting shortly after the impeachment vote. “I sincerely apologize to the people for causing such widespread chaos while our national security situation and the economy are going through a difficult time,” she said, citing problems ranging from bird flu to the challenge the cold winter would pose to the poor.
But the president, who last week said she would stand down if the assembly demanded it, reverted to her previous defiant stance.
“I will respond to the procedure of the Constitutional Court and the special prosecutors’ investigation with a calm and clear mind,” she told her ministers, according to remarks distributed by her office. She urged them to get back to work and minimize disruption to the country while the court deliberates.
That seems … unlikely. Two of Park’s former aides face criminal charges relating to the corruption scandal that centers on her confidante Choi Soon-sil. Choi had no official position in the government but got access to inside information anyway, presumably through Park. Choi used that access to garner a fortune from high-ranking business executives allegedly eager to curry favor with the Park administration. Park has nearly no political support left, although she’s certainly tried to tamp down the outrage with repeated apologies.
On the other hand, Park has some precedent to hope for a reprieve. The constitutional court reversed an impeachment twelve years ago, the only other time the National Assembly has taken that step. That scandal also involved abuse of power, but perhaps not in the unusual, Rasputin-ish way that Park’s scandal has turned.
This will leave the Seoul government in limbo, perhaps for the entire six months (it only took two with Roh Moo-hyun, however). That’s a worrisome status anytime for a country merely a DMZ away from a heavily armed and aggressive Stalinist regime who wants to lay claim to the whole peninsula, but perhaps especially so now given Kim Jong-un’s recent moves. Officially the governing power passes into the hands of the prime minister, but any confusion on the chain of command will offer an opening for disaster from the north. The situation bears watching, and a reminder of the strength of will to defend South Korea.