Park Geun-hye Unraveling VI: Endgame

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Inbok Rhee (UCSD)



We now have the formal impeachment vote: 234 to impeach, 56 against, with 7 invalid votes, 2 abstentions and one early departure from the vote. Although a secret ballot, this implies that nearly half of the Saenuri party deserted Park. And this despite the fact that the opposition potentially overreached by threatening to resign en masse if the vote did not pass and by insisting on including Park’s 7-hour absence during the Sewol ferry sinking in the impeachment motion.   

We analyze the impeachment in three steps: today, how we got here over the last week and the Constitutional Court process; on Monday, the political positioning that now starts and the wider implications.

Endgame Politics

We have argued throughout this crisis that a complex political game is in play involving the pressure emanating from public opinion and the streets; a divided National Assembly; a divided Saenuri; and the cards that the President herself has been able to play in trying to structure the agenda.

After the demonstrations last Saturday—estimated at the highest turnout since they started, with perhaps as many as 2 million in the streets—the non-Park faction in the Saenuri shifted course. Prior to the demonstrations, their position was to hold impeachment as a threat: that they would vote impeachment if Park failed to openly state her intention to resign in the April-June timeline she had previously hinted.

On Sunday, however, after an emergency meeting, they concluded that they would participate in the impeachment votes regardless of whether President came out with a statement about the timeline. The choice seemed to be more sharply posed: an immediate resignation or an impeachment vote.

On December 6th, Park made her final bid. She called in Saenuri whip Chung Jin-seok and Leader Lee Jeong-hyun to the Blue House and conveyed the following message: 

- If the impeachment vote went through the National Assembly, she would “accept the results and faithfully follow the subsequent procedures as laid out in law." Some media sources reported that she and her advisors had at least some confidence she would be acquitted, although it would clearly be a Pyrrhic victory. One indicator of interest: all of the chaebol CEOs grilled before National Assembly hearings earlier in the week denied any reciprocity or benefits from their donations, which might make the bribery charges hard to prove.

- She also stated that she will not pursue the option of resigning after the impeachment vote. Although it appears that she is not allowed to (Article 134 [2] of the National Assembly Act) there was enough legal ambiguity to leave this open as a possibility. Of course, if she is confident of acquittal not resigning is an easy promise to make.

- She also made clear that there will be no "4th Address to the Nation," seeking to reach over the heads of the National Assembly to her dwindling base, which has failed to rally to any significant degree.

- However, she also clearly tried to play her trump card: that "if the NA approves impeachment, confusion in the state affairs will be inevitable, at least for the next six months until the Constitutional Court ruling takes place." Although there is some truth in this claim, the confusion is of Park’s own making and it is not clear that a ruling would take a full six months.

- At the same time, she continued to play for time by saying that she not only remained willing to accept the April resignation plan, but favored it. The reasons for her favoring this outcome were complex (see the analysis here), but had to do with the timing and procedure of the Special Prosecutor and the fact that until April she would still be protected from criminal charges. Yet she also wanted to put this decision on the shoulders of the National Assembly, which they clearly didn’t want.

From the Vote to the Constitutional Court

The impeachment was submitted to the National Assembly at 2:45 in the afternoon on the 8th, voting was opened 24 hours later and the body had a full 72 hours to finalize it. But there was little agonizing and the results came quickly. Unlike other recent votes, the results were pretty well-predicted: some in the Saenuri leadership itself predicted 220-230 votes, despite the fact that some were arguing up to the final submission of the motion that the April-June resignation option was still open.

With the impeachment, Park enters a kind of legal limbo. She is not formally removed from government, but she is forced to give up all authority as President; the position is occupied by the Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, a former prosecutor and staunch defender of Park up to the end. Immediately, questions now arise as to the powers that Hwang should be able to wield. Is he really an interim president or should power be shared with the National Assembly and if so, how exactly? 

The Constitutional Court process is as follows. Unlike other hearings that can involve smaller groups, all nine judges participate but the impeachment decision requires six. As we have noted in earlier posts there are scheduled departures from the court over the next several months that will bring the total number ruling first to eight and then to seven; the margin is small. Each judge needs to individually state their position and their reasons. If impeachment is voted by the court, a 60-day clock is started for staging an election that will not fill out her term, but lead to a new 5-year term; thus the incredible jockeying around the timing of her resignation or impeachment. Who is likely to stand in the best position when?

Decisions about the hearing schedule will now be made by the court. These sessions are open to the public and is based on oral proceedings. However, the Court may decide to keep any session closed if it determines they may “undermine national security or disturb public safety and order, or be harmful to public morals.” During the Roh Moo-hyun case in 2004, the sessions were kept open but it is possible that some of the classified material involved in the case will prompt closed sessions.        

The Court has wide-ranging investigative authority including the questioning of the accused and the calling of witnesses. While the attendance of the accused – the President – is required in principle, the Court does not have any means to coerce her participation. Given her reticence for public appearances that are not scripted, this could be a point of contention if she refuses, but also a circus of she complies. (Sources: here and here)

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