South Korean turmoil reveals cracks in country’s democracy

South Korea aims for stability after President Park Geun-hye’s removal

South Korea’s constitutional court has expelled President Park Geun-hye from office after a graft scandal involving the country’s mighty “chaebol” industrial conglomerates, a shamanistic adviser and a barrage of accusations that she lied and attacked her critics.

By revealing cosy links between big business and the government and showing how leaders are out of touch with the population generally, the political turmoil has exposed the cracks in the democratic structure of South Korea, which transitioned from dictatorship in 1987.

As shown by the death of two of Park’s supporters in clashes with police outside the court, these are tense times in South Korea.

With an increasingly aggressive North Korea, slowing growth in Asia’s fourth-biggest economy and worsening economic retaliation by China over the deployment of a US missile defence system, the immediate priority will be to ensure stability ahead of an election, expected in May.

Park’s removal marks a stunning fall from grace for the eldest daughter of the strongman dictator Park Chung-hee.

Her election in December 2012 brought her back to the Blue House where she spent her teenage years and served as acting first lady after her mother Yook Young-soo was assassinated in 1974. Her father was slain in 1979.

Park was impeached in December after revelations about her long-time relationship with Choi Soon-sil, with whom she is accused of conspiring to secure millions of dollars in donations for foundations set up by Choi.

Choi is the daughter of Park’s mentor Choi Tae-min, a “Rasputin-like” leader of a shady, shamanistic cult who died in 1994.

The Korean leader has been close to the family since the assassination of Park’s father.

Top government figures and leaders of the "chaebol" have become enmeshed in the scandal, including Lee Jae-yong, acting head of Samsung.

Park was accused of colluding with Choi to receive bribes from Samsung to cement Lee’s control of the company.

Sewol ferry sinking

What probably angered ordinary Koreans most during the scandal were allegations she mishandled the Sewol ferry sinking in April 2014, which left more than 300 passengers, mostly young students, dead or missing.

She was accused of having her hair done and receiving beauty treatments on the day of the accident, when she reportedly went missing for seven hours.

The scandal took on a surreal note with reports of taxpayers’ money spent on placenta injections and Viagra for altitude sickness, of blackmail against Olympic heroes and blacklists of artists deemed hostile to her government.

Analysts said the decision to remove Park was evidence that South Korea’s democracy was a healthy one.

"The constitutional court's decision is equivalent to demanding legal accountability for President Park's failure to properly run state affairs," Yang Seung-ham at Seoul's Yonsei University told local media.

“Now the public should accept the ruling.”

Polls showed that more than 70 per cent supported her impeachment and millions took to the streets of Seoul to protest at the height of the scandal.

Park’s unprecedented removal – she is South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office - comes at a time of boiling tensions on the Korean peninsula.

This week saw North Korea launch four ballistic missiles that came down the sea near Japan this week, the latest salvo out of dozens of rockets, and Pyongyang has conducted two of its five nuclear tests in defiance of UN sanctions.

There is also growing international concern after the apparent murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam.

North Korea is focusing its ire on two-month military drills by South Korean and US troops kicked off the two-month drill, called Foal Eagle, on March 1st.

The exercises involve ground, air and naval forces and are seen by the North Koreans as preparations for war.

Then there is China, a vital trading partner but a problematic political force for Seoul.

The Xinhua news agency said in an editorial that Park’s successor would have to “think hard” about the deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system.

The left wing parties are likely to benefit from Park’s removal and they are not as enthusiastic about THAAD as Park’s party.

As you’d expect, North Korea is relishing the political upheaval south of the border.

“She had one more year left as ‘president’ but, now she’s been ousted,she will be investigated as a common criminal,” the North’s state KCNA news agency said, happy perhaps to have the attention focused south of the 38th parallel dividing the peninsula.