Transformation after scandal, impeachment. Major governance problems exposed. Protests showed public’s defense of democracy
The period under review saw dramatic changes in South Korea, with the parliament voting to impeach conservative President Park Geun-hye in December 2016 following a corruption scandal and months of public demonstrations in which millions of Koreans participated. In March 2017, the Korean Constitutional Court unanimously decided to uphold the impeachment, and new presidential elections consequently took place in May 2017. The elections were won by the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Moon Jae-in, by a wide margin. The corruption scandal revealed major governance problems in South Korea, including collusion between the state and big business and a lack of institutional checks and balances able to prevent presidential abuses of power in a system that concentrates too much power in one office. Particularly striking were the revelations that under conservative Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, the political opposition had been systematically suppressed by a state that impeded the freedom of the press, manipulated public opinion and created blacklists of artists who were seen as critical of the government. It was also revealed that the government had colluded with private businesses to create slush funds. However, the massive protests against President Park that began in October 2016 showed that the Korean public remains ready to defend its democracy and stand up against corruption. On 3 December 2016, an estimated 2 million people across the country took to the streets to demonstrate again President Park. While the protests were to a large degree spontaneous, they were in part driven by the work of vibrant civil-society organizations. News reports, particularly from JTBC TV, also played an important role in uncovering the scandals.
New government promises major changes
The Moon administration has promised major changes with the aim of making South Korea more democratic and improving social justice. During his first six months in office, Moon announced a large number of policy proposals (“100 policy tasks”) that include welfare-, justice- and education-system reforms. He also promised to decentralize power and put place new limits on the constitutional powers of the president. These changes were to be proposed in a set of constitutional reforms that would be put to a referendum in 2018. As of the time of writing, many of the policy proposals had not yet been implemented. Moreover, many will certainly face difficulties, as President Moon’s Democratic Party lacks a parliamentary majority. Negotiating the remaining overlap between the Park and Moon governments presents a major challenge, as does completion of the new government’s many announced but as-yet-unimplemented policies.
Strong economy based on export sector. New approach to North Korea
Economically, Korea is doing exceptionally well in cross-OECD comparison. With an annual GDP growth rate of 2.8% in 2016, Korea was above the OECD average of 1.78%. Korea remains a major exporter, with many highly competitive multinational corporations producing a great variety of products in the automotive, IT and other industries, although this also leaves the country vulnerable to global market volatility. The overall unemployment rate remains low at 3.8%, but the labor-market participation rate is below average, and the lack of social mobility is causing an increasing degree of concern, particularly among the younger generations. With regard to international relations, President Moon Jae-in has abandoned the hard-line rhetoric of previous governments and wants to actively engage and negotiate with North Korea. However, this policy path carries its own difficulties given the continuing provocations from the North, as well as the actions of hard-line leaders in the United States and Japan that have used the threat from the North to pursue their own agendas of nationalist consolidation and militarism. Beyond the North Korea question, the character of the country’s future international engagement – for example, with regard to urgent issues of climate change, poverty in the Global South, and a fairer global economic and financial system – has yet to come into sharp focus.
Democratic transformation revitalized
In conclusion, South Korea has begun a new project to restore democracy and revitalize the transformation to a mature democracy that had stalled and even regressed somewhat under the previous two conservative administrations. However, South Korea is moving in the right direction with the momentum gained from the so-called candlelight revolution.