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South Korea at a crossroads (THEHINDU)



en Park Geun-hye assumed office as South Korea’s first woman President in early 2013 on a wave of popularity, not many could have foreseen her impeachment on corruption charges less than four years later. Such has been the impact of the scandal that several lawmakers from her own Saenuri Party voted in favour of the impeachment resolution brought in by the opposition in Parliament. The crisis was sparked by revelations two months ago that Ms. Park had abused her powers to help a confidante, Choi Soon-sil, extort money from companies for her foundations. Since then, the Korean media have carried stories of Ms. Choi’s access to the President’s office and her influence in decision-making. The crisis was handled ineptly by Ms. Park and her aides. She never bothered to explain her position directly to the public, and did not take her party into confidence. She stayed away from the press and the opposition, perhaps hoping the crisis would blow over. But with a 4 per cent approval rating, she soon became the most unpopular leader South Korea has had since its transition to a democracy in the late-1980s. And an impeachment appeared certain in the wake of opposition protests that attracted over a million people to Seoul.

South Korean Presidents are no strangers to corruption scandals. But in Ms. Park’s case, the allegation that the President was being controlled by a puppeteer seemed to have aggravated the public anger. Moreover, Ms. Park’s record in office was far from exemplary. The economy continued to sputter under her rule with growth rate falling to 2.6 per cent in 2015, the slowest since 2012. Her decision to reach an agreement with the United States to deploy an advanced missile system to counter threats from North Korea was not popular domestically, and also increased tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Relations with The China too steadily deteriorated under Ms. Park. South Korea needs a clear-headed leadership both to reboot the economy and to take strategic decisions with a long-term perspective. And given the bitterness and administrative paralysis of the past couple of months, it needs someone at the helm who is free of scandal and has popular support. Unfortunately, the impeachment has pushed South Korea into a protracted interregnum — the Constitutional Court can take up to six months to decide if Ms. Park has to go or whether her powers can be restored. Ms. Park could have avoided pushing the country into this period of uncertainty had she resigned before the parliamentary vote. But she chose to cling on, leaving lawmakers with no option but to trigger the impeachment process.

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