Report challenges legal, factual basis for impeaching South Korea’s conservative president

FPI / July 16, (updated July 21), 2019

More than two years after conservative South Korea President Park Geun-Hye was impeached, questions remain on whether the charges against Park were baseless or whether they were worthy of impeachment and a prison sentence, a report said.

“Most people do not know exactly what happened or how enormously negative of an impact the impeachment had on the rule of law in South Korea,” Asia specialist Tara O wrote on July 12. Tara O, Ph.D. is Director at East Asia Research Center and a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force (Ret.)

South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on May 8, 2013.

The western press mainly reported that bribery and corruption led to Park’s downfall preceded by mass “candlelight” street demonstrations in Seoul at a time North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was flaunting his regime’s nuclear and missile breakthroughs.

“The key assumption is that there must have been evidence that found her guilty of various charges, and that they were worthy of impeachment and jailing,” Tara O wrote. “After all, South Korea is an advanced democracy and wealthy, is it not? Also, the media reported it that way, and people held candlelights. Yet, how many people, South Koreans and foreigners, really know exactly what happened?”

Among the questions needing clarification:

“What was she really charged with? How long did it take for the National Assembly to vote on the impeachment bill? Did everyone support her impeachment? What was the evidence? Was there really an investigation? Was the legal process fair and according to the law?”

Related: Violence in Seoul as workers hired by leftist mayor destroy conservatives’ tents, June 25, 2019

As the forces for impeachment grew, propaganda leaflets were distributed around Seoul in late 2016/early 2017 that portrayed Park Geun-Hye as a puppet of the U.S., pro-Japan, and anti-North Korea, the report noted.

Pro-impeachment, or candlelight protests, were held regularly and covered extensively by the media.

Meanwhile, conservative anti-impeachment rallies, called Taegukki (South Korean flag) rallies, where both the South Korean and U.S. flags were seen, were also prevalent, but were largely ignored by the media.

Any media coverage of the flag rallies, the report noted, stated they were small, while giving extensive coverage to the pro-impeachment candlelight protests and overestimating their size.

For instance, on Dec. 31, 2016, a pro-impeachment candlelight protest was held at the Gwanghwamun Plaza while an anti-impeachment flag rally was held near City Hall.

“Yonhap News reported 720,000 for the candlelight protest and only 12,000 for the flag rally, although it appears the size of the flag protest was bigger than the size of the candlelight protests,” the report noted. “Such biased reporting gave the impression that the majority of South Koreans supported impeachment.”

The National Assembly impeached Park “in a rush”. “There was no hearing, no investigation, and the voting occurred only six days after the introduction of the impeachment bill. This rushed and unreasonable, if not unconstitutional, impeachment process differs from the U.S. President Richard Nixon case, in which there existed two separate investigations totaling 1 year and 6 months.”

The impeachment bill was introduced on Dec. 3, 2016 (Saturday), and the impeachment vote was on Dec. 9, 2016 (Friday). “There was not enough time between the time of introduction of the bill and the voting of it,” Tara O wrote. “Apparently, most lawmakers did not even read the impeachment bill before they voted. There essentially was no deliberation on an issue of national importance at the National Assembly before voting took place.”

South Korean residents, asked why Park was impeached, will likely respond by saying “gookjeong nongdan,” the report said.

What does it mean? The electronic dictionary shows that “gookjeong” means the “affairs of the state” or “government administration” and “nongdan” as “monopoly,” “monopolize,” or “the assumption of an exclusive right.”

Thus it literally means monopolizing the state affairs – “eerily similar to having absolute power,” Tara O wrote. “But did the public feel Park Geun-Hye had absolute power as the president? No, it was the opposite. Thus, the term Googkjeong nongdan, as explained in the dictionary, does not match what many people believe it is.”

The report continued: “The term ‘gookjeong nongdan’ came out of thin air in 2016. Most people did not know what it meant (and many still do not).”

The media began to use the “Gookjeong Nongdan” term widely to describe the charge that Choi Seo-Won, a friend of Park, and not Park herself, was running the country by intervening in state affairs, the report noted.

This became especially evident after cable TV’s JTBC aired the so-called “tablet PC” story on October 24, 25, and 26, 2016.

“On the 26th, JTBC’s president and anchor Sohn Suk-Hee appeared himself on TV to make unfounded claims about the ‘tablet PC,’ ” the report continued. “JTBC showed a tablet with files on the screen and said that Choi edits Park Geun-Hye’s speeches and reviews government documents. Other media outlets picked up the story, and the tablet story spread like wildfire.”

The claim by JTBC “led people to believe that Park was not running the country – ‘gookjeong nongdan,’ ” Tara O wrote. “JTBC’s unsubstantiated claim about the tablet PC embarrassed and angered the public, leading to multiple, large-scale candlelight protests. The National Assembly, the prosecution, and the Constitutional Court also referred to the news stories about the tablet PC as ‘evidence’ of ‘gookjeong nongdan.’ JTBC, popular among youths, has made other claims, such as the false story about U.S. beef imports that led to mass protests about ‘Mad Cow Disease’ and anti-U.S. beef imports in 2008. It also broadcasted false stories about the Sewol Ferry sinking and the Theater High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD), which also were followed by protests.”

Not only have JTBC’s claims about the tablet not been verified but “the government’s forensic report indicates thousands of files were created, edited, and deleted in the tablet after JTBC found the tablet,” Tara O noted.

Galvanized by the “Tablet PC” story, anti-Park and pro-North Korean forces “joined the very well-organized candlelight protests, which initially demanded that Park step down, but later that Park be impeached,” the report said.

The protest organizers included the “violent and anti-U.S., pro-North Korea Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the Teachers and Education Workers’ Union,” the report noted. They were, in part, “responsible for organizing these candlelight events that were crafted to give a festive atmosphere, complete with concerts, to be more appealing to the crowd. KCTU, one of the key organizers, often protests on various political matters, such as the Sewol Ferry sinking, in addition to the candlelight protests calling to oust Park. Numerous other unrelated demands were made at these candlelight protests, such as the demand to withdraw THAAD and to free Lee Seok-Ki, who went to jail for sedition. There were also assertions that China was maneuvering by surreptitiously sending Chinese students in South Korea to participate in the candlelight protests.”

To impeach a president, Section 65.1 South Korea’s constitution states the president must violate “the Constitution or the law while carrying on the duties of the office.”

“One would presume there would be at least an investigation and evidence for such a grave state matter as impeaching a president,” Tara O wrote. “Surprisingly, there was no investigation into a case for the impeachment of Park Geun-Hye directly nor were there efforts to gather evidence. The ‘smoking gun’ for an offense that is not even in the legal codes – gookjeong nongdan – was JTBC’s tablet story, which was never validated. There was no proof that Park Geun-Hye violated the constitution or the law. Impeaching on suspicions and rumors, and before establishing the facts of the case, therefore, is unconstitutional. This fact is one of many ignored during the impeachment process.”

“The concept of ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ was not applied here. What was used was the concept of ‘guilt by association,’ which is not used in the West, but found in places like North Korea. There was an investigation that started on Nov. 17, 2016, but not about Park Geun-Hye. The investigation, which began less than three weeks before the impeachment vote, focused on Choi Seo-Won (Choi Soon-Sil), Park Geun-Hye’s friend.”

The report concluded: “If they can do this to a democratically elected president, then what can they do to an average citizen? What does it mean for the rule of law, and by extension, liberal democracy in South Korea?” See full report here.

FPI, Free Press International

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