On Friday morning in South Korea, the eight judges of the country’s Constitutional Court appeared live on national television, sitting solemn-faced in their high-back, red-velvet chairs. Three months earlier, the country’s conservative President, Park Geun-hye, had been impeached by the National Assembly. The court had been tasked with either upholding or overturning the legislators’ decision, and it was now ready to issue its ruling. Lee Jung-mi, the only woman justice, read the entire opinion aloud. The court condemned Park’s “betrayal of the public trust” and emphasized the need to “protect the constitution.” Lee spoke for more than twenty minutes, and then a digital scorecard eclipsed her on the screen: eight votes to uphold the impeachment, zero to overturn.
Outside the courthouse, in Seoul, anti-Park democracy activists greeted the ruling by dancing and marching in spontaneous parades, replete with party hats, balloons, and sparklers. Pro-Park demonstrators gathered as well, in angry crowds, and three people died in the chaos. The ruling had been expected, but Korea is a young democracy, and Koreans have rarely seen such dramatic change occur through the courts, much less through citizen protest. In this case, though, the scale of the President’s misdeeds and the volume of the accompanying outcry—tens of millions of “Candlelight Movement” demonstrators filling city streets—had been impossible to ignore.
The crisis began five months ago, when tabloid news stories began to appear about Park’s intimate reliance on a childhood friend named Choi Soon-sil. Choi had been editing Park’s speeches, selecting Park’s daily wardrobe, and making key personnel decisions for Park’s Administration—all while taking in millions of dollars off her connection to the President. As time went on, more layers were peeled back, implicating various government ministers and corporations, including the electronics giant Samsung, a chebol, or quasi-state conglomerate, that accounts for a fifth of Korea’s G.D.P. In mid-February, Samsung’s billionaire vice chairman, Lee Jae-yong, was arrested on bribery charges.
The scandal, and Park’s subsequent impeachment, triggered a debate over the nation’s economic, political, and social order. On one side were Park’s supporters—mostly older Koreans, fearful of North Korea, still traumatized by war, and holding fond memories of Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, the “modernizing” military dictator who ran the country in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. On the other were citizens fatigued by the past decade of hard-right rule. The so-called Candlelight Movement came to stand for a broad set of principles: freedom of speech, government and corporate accountability, economic redistribution, and workers’ rights. “Our cause has benefitted from the Candlelight Movement,” Lee Jong-ran, a labor lawyer with the group SHARPS, which advocates for laborers in Samsung’s semiconductor factories, told me on Friday. But, she cautioned, “We can’t say that everything will be fine, post-ouster. We must fix the system.”
Well into Saturday, Park remained cloistered inside the Presidential Blue House, contributing to worries that she might not give up power peacefully. On an evening news show, Chung Doo-un, a former assemblyman in Park’s party, said, “I’d hoped for the impeachment to be upheld, and believed it should be, but when it actually happened, I felt uneasy. This should unite the nation, but I’m worried that we’re getting off to a chaotic start.” Chung was one of many Koreans who condemned Park’s handling of the 2014 Sewol ferry crash, in which nearly three hundred people were killed. Park had remained silent for hours after news of the crash broke, and her failure to respond is widely perceived as her greatest sin in office. To much of the public’s chagrin, the Constitutional Court made only passing reference to the Sewol scandal in its decision.
The Korean constitution requires an election to take place within sixty days of Friday’s ruling, and the various parties represented in the National Assembly are now scrambling to pick their preferred candidates. Among the most popular is Moon Jae-in, a former democracy activist and human-rights attorney who, while Park was in office, led the opposition Democratic Party of Korea. The election will come at a difficult moment, not only for the Korean peninsula but also for East Asia and, indeed, the entire world. Every spring, in an extravagant, costly display, the U.S. and South Korea stage military exercises as a warning to the North (and Japan and China, too). And every spring, North Korea stages its own extravagant, costly missile launches, spurring international scorn. This year, President Trump has been added to the mix, goading Chinese and North Korean leaders on Twitter, while holding hands with Shinzo Abe, the right-wing nationalist leader of Japan. The U.S. has begun to install the controversial THAAD missile-defense system in South Korea, bolstering the dozen U.S. military bases and thirty thousand U.S. soldiers already in place.
Moon, who in the nineteen-seventies, as a college activist, was arrested by Park’s father’s military squads, has opposed installing the THAAD system, and has called for a more conciliatory approach to North Korea. (This stance has invited allegations of Communist ties.) His profile and platform resemble that of the left-wing President he once worked for: Roh Moo-hyun. Roh was also the first Korean President to face impeachment. In his case, the Constitutional Court had ruled in his favor, but as corruption charges mounted against him and his family, he committed suicide in 2009.
All of this history resonates now. “It’s simplistic to say that the Candlelight Movement is a protest that arose just to impeach Park Geun-hye,” Choi Kyung-jun, editor of the citizen-journalism outlet OhMyNews, told me. “It’s a continuation of the democracy demands of the nineteen-eighties. We’re building on the experiences of our predecessors. We compare it to a flower coming into bloom.”