In her third address to the nation concerning the scandals surrounding her presidency, Park Geun-hye finally appeared to admit the inevitable: “If the ruling and opposition parties discuss and come up with a plan to reduce the confusion in state affairs and ensure a safe transfer of governments, I will step down from the presidential position under that schedule and by processes stated in law. Now, I have put everything down.” (For video of her statement see here; the full transcript in English is here.)
What does that really mean? First, Park is not resigning immediately, and in fact she will only do so if the ruling and opposition parties “come up with a plan.” Second, there is no “confusion in state affairs” other than what she herself has created. If she steps down, there is a clearly stated process for the staging of a new election. If she does not, she can be impeached. But there is a third option: seek to sew yet more confusion by playing for time. Park may be using her exit as a means of extracting some concessions that will benefit either the Saenuri—what is left of it—or herself personally. Let’s review these options.
The opposition as well as some of the more liberal members of the Saenuri have been pushing for immediate resignation. This outcome has also been the focus of the mass protests over the weekends. The procedure if she does is completely clear, although it requires a tight timeline. According to Article 68 (2) of the Constitution, if the President decides to step down, an election needs to take place within 60 days. Moreover, the election date needs to be announced at least 50 days in advance (Article 35 of the Public Official Election Act). In other words, if the President steps down, the Prime Minister needs to announce the election date in 10 days and hold an election within 2 months.
However, a clean resignation now appears more and more unlikely, and the reasons have to do with the politics. With Moon Jae-in leading the polls (see RealMeter) at 25.3%—followed by Ban Ki-moon at 17.1% and Lee Jae-myung at 14.6%—early elections will most likely mean a victory for the opposition. The real deterrent to this option is that the Special Prosecutor’s investigation would be conducted under the guidance of the opposition party, an outcome she has clearly sought to avoid, including by pressure on the prosecutors that looks more and more Watergate-like.
A new twist in the case is that both the new Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs, Choi Jae-kyung (Woo Byung-woo's successor), as well as the Minister of Justice, Kim Hyun-woong have tendered their resignations. The President approved the resignation of Minister Kim but not Secretary Choi. While the reasons for the resignations are still unclear, all indications suggest that the Blue House is putting pressure on the current Attorney General to step down. The Park scandal now has its own Saturday Night Massacre, a potential parallel to Nixon's dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox and the immediate resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus.
The Park drama plays out in the shadow of outright impeachment: this would appear to be the ultimate trump card that the National Assembly wields over the president (see Anna Fifield at the Washington Post for a good summary). The more likely impeachment, the less room for maneuver; the more uncertain impeachment, the more room for maneuver. Right now, impeachment is looking less and less appealing to the National Assembly, and the reasons are both political and legal.
In order for impeachment to pass the National Assembly, 200 aye votes are needed out of the total of 300 National Assembly Members. Considering that there are a total of 172 opposition members, this means that in addition to all of the opposition votes, 28 votes need to be rounded up from the Saenuri party. All opposition parties initially agreed to push to get the impeachment vote done by December 2. But Saenuri pushback, factional infighting and second thoughts have complicated the picture.
Anti-Park faction members in the Saenuri initially seemed sympathetic to the impeachment cause. Their leader, Kim Moo-sung, publically announced that he would abandon his bid for the presidency in order to see the impeachment through. But the pro-Park faction of the Saenuri is now trying to rally the party and keep it from going wobbly. The anti-Park faction has now agreed to the Park-faction plan of resignation in late April and early elections in late June.
The current chair of the Minjoo, Choo Mi-ae, also met with the anti-Park faction to suggest that the Minjoo will withdraw the call for impeachment if Saenuri can agree on early resignation; such an agreement was not forthcoming. But a united front among the opposition also fell apart when the People’s Party backed away from pushing a December 2 impeachment vote. In short, the Saenuri is coalescing around a plan that buys time while divisions are emerging among the impeachment camp.
There are also some legal complications. It is not clear whether the President can actually step down once the impeachment review by the Constitutional Court gets under way (Section 2, Article 65 of the Constitution and Section 2, Article 134 of the National Assembly Act). The first states that “Any person against whom a motion for impeachment has been passed shall be suspended from exercising his power until the impeachment has been adjudicated.” Suspended, but not relieved of position. The second states that “when the resolution for prosecution is delivered, the exercise of authority by the person to be impeached shall be suspended, and the appointing authorities shall not receive the resignation of the person to be impeached or dismiss him/her.” The second is even more explicit: this is the “confusion” that Park appears to be playing on.
Another related issue that stymies the National Assembly is whether the nine-judge Constitutional Court would actually approve a motion for impeachment if passed. The composition of the court matters. There are two vote counts involved. Currently, there is only one judge (Kim Isoo), who was nominated by the opposition. The other eight have been nominated by conservative administrations, and two have been nominated by President Park herself.
To make matters worse, the current President of the Court, Park Han-chul, is scheduled to retire on Jan 31st, 2017. Another judge, Lee Jeong-mi, is also scheduled to retire on March 13th, 2017. According to Article 113 of the Constitution, impeachment decisions require at least 6 judges to vote in favor regardless of how many judges are currently serving. If Park and Lee retire before the final decision can be reached, the Court will be left with 7 members. In such a situation, only two “no” votes would be sufficient to block impeachment. Moreover, having only one of the judges oppose impeachment is enough to delay putting things up for vote in the first place under the current provisions of the law. With the December 2 Impeachment vote clearly out of the picture, we are already down to 8 out of 9 judges on the court given Park Han-chul’s pending departure. (For more on judges tenure and retirement see here; sources for other relevant information: here, here, here, and here.)
Playing for Time
In her statement, President Park claimed she will “leave the matters about my fate, including the shortening of my presidential term, to be decided by the National Assembly.”
What is the motive for this delaying option? One is to buy time for the Saenuri to sort itself out and prepare for elections. On Nov 30th, the Saenuri stated its official position supporting the President’s resignation and suggested that a resignation by late April and an early election in late June may be appropriate. There has been constant speculation that the delay is designed to pave the way for Ban Ki-moon as President and a Saenuri PM.” (See here) In a recent interview on Nov 29th, Ban Ki-moon stated that “come January 1st, I will once again become an ordinary Korean citizen. I will go back to the country to discuss with my friends and the leaders of the Korean society what my role should be for my home country.” In another recent report, Kim Won-soo (Ban’s close confidant and UN Under Secretary-General), stated that Ban intends to “pay a visit to the widows of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung, Kim Young-sam, and Roh Moo-hyun, as well as visit the graves of the former Presidents at the National Cemetery upon his return.” (See here.) If that isn’t the launch of a campaign, what would be?
Park’s play for time has also been interpreted as an effort to extract some institutional concessions on her way out the door. The only legal way to “shorten” the presidential term outside impeachment is constitutional change or some extra-constitutional negotiated settlement. Before the scandal broke, both the ruling and opposition parties had been discussing constitutional change to “overcome the negative aspects of presidentialism.” The National Assembly Constitutional Change Research Group has over 180 members, including 65 from the Saenuri, 84 from the Minjoo, and 33 from the People’s Party. While there are various ideas as to what the change would entail, the main components that have been discussed are changing the 5-years term to 4-years term; allowing re-election; limiting the power of the President to mostly diplomacy and protocol and diverting the power for domestic politics to the PM and the cabinet. (Sources: here, here, here, here, and here)
Of course, all of the politicians with political futures—or wanting to keep them—are scrambling to figure out what to do: for the country, for their parties and for themselves. This is not easy, to be sure, but it is also not pretty to watch. Here are the responses from the three main parties as of today.
While the pro-Park and anti-Park factions in the Saenuri seem to have been divided on the issue of impeachment right up until President Park’s Third Address, they now seem to be forming a united front. On December 1st, the party unanimously decided to support the plan for resignation in late April and early election in late June, with differences coming down to exactly how much time she would be allowed.
The opposition front, on the other hand, is a lot more divided. The key players in the opposition, including Moon Jae-in, Lee Jae-myung, Ahn Chul-soo, Park Won-soon, Ahn Hee-chung, and Kim Boo-kyum, all strongly condemned both the President and the Saenuri and demanded impeachment. However, divisions between the Minjoo and People’s Party already blocked the opportunity to put the impeachment vote up for December 2nd. Moreover, the more moderate sections of the opposition, including Choo Mi-ae, the current chair of The Minjoo, or Park Ji-won, the current chair of the People’s Party, now seem at least a little more hesitant about taking the leap into impeachment while the more progressive sections of the opposition seem to be gearing up for a fight. On the 30th, Pyo Chang-won, a first term Minjoo assembly member, publically posted the list of National Assembly members who are either undecided or opposed to the impeachment vote, which nearly led to a fist-fight on the Assembly floor.
On top of all this, there have also been numerous reports about the potential formation of an anti-Park/anti-Moon coalition in the pro-constitutional reform group, including Chung Eui-hwa (former speaker, Saenuri), Kim Moo-sung (former chair, Saenuri), Yoo Seung-min (former whip, Saenuri), Sohn Hak-kyu, Kim Jong-in (former chairs, The Minjoo), and Ahn Chul-soo (former chair, The People’s Party). All of this is occurring in the shadow of Ban Ki-moon’s return in January.
The most likely outcome is a reiteration of Park’s commitment to step down with a date certain. But with her departure dragged out over months, the country not only faces more uncertainty but the risk that she will try to cling to power. That would be the worst possible outcome.