Above all else, public sentiment will decide if Korea impeaches its president

Posted on : 2024-07-11 17:24 KST Modified on : 2024-07-11 17:24 KST
There have been plenty of attempted impeachments, but the deciding factor in Park Geun-hye’s impeachment was the public outrage over her shadow government
President Yoon Suk-yeol (third from right) attends a ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Freedom Federation held at a gymnasium in Incheon on July 4, 2024. Surrounding Yoon are candidates for chairperson of the People Power Party Han Dong-hoon (left), Won Hee-ryong (second from left) and Na Kyung-won (second from right). (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol (third from right) attends a ceremony celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Freedom Federation held at a gymnasium in Incheon on July 4, 2024. Surrounding Yoon are candidates for chairperson of the People Power Party Han Dong-hoon (left), Won Hee-ryong (second from left) and Na Kyung-won (second from right). (Yonhap)

A petition calling for an immediate motion to impeach South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has garnered over 1 million signatures as of July 3. It takes patience to sign the petition. The server’s limited capacity forces the user to wait in long, monotonous queues to complete the process. The speaker of the National Assembly has ordered a server upgrade, but it looks like that will take some time. 

It turns out that many people did not know about these so-called “national assent” commissions run through the National Assembly until they jumped on to the campaign to get Yoon impeached. The petition was launched on June 20 and ends on July 20. It remains to be seen how many signatures it will gather. After July 20, a subcommittee within the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee must review the petition. If the subcommittee approves the petition, it is sent back to the Legislation and Judiciary Committee, where a referral to the regular session would be decided in another plenary session.     

Basic conditions to prove illegal or unconstitutional professional conduct

Yet it takes more than a simple petition to pass a motion to impeach the president. The authority to impeach a president belongs to the National Assembly, a body of elected representatives. It takes a parliamentary majority to introduce a motion to impeach the president. Over two-thirds of sitting National Assembly lawmakers need to approve the motion for it to pass. Motions to impeach positions other than the president require either one-third of the National Assembly or a simple parliamentary majority. 

Currently, the National Assembly comprises 170 Democratic Party seats, 108 People Power Party seats, 12 Rebuilding Korea Party seats, three Reform Party seats, three Progressive Party seats, one Basic Income Party seat, one Social Democratic Party seat, one New Future Party seat, and one independent seat (speaker). If the People Power Party bands together against the motion, it will be defeated. 

The people of South Korea have grown accustomed to presidential impeachments. Roh Moo-hyun and Park Geun-hye were both impeached. Yet impeaching someone is actually a very complicated and tricky process. Impeachment allows legislators to move to expel public officials whose positions are legally protected, such as high-ranking administrators or judges — people who cannot be fired according to standard legal or disciplinary procedures. 

Grounds for impeachment are limited to unconstitutional or illegal conduct in the course of one’s official duties (Article 65, Paragraph 1 of the Constitution). The Constitution clearly identifies the positions that are subject to impeachment: the president, the prime minister, Cabinet members, heads of executive ministries, justices of the Constitutional Court, judges, National Election Commission members, the chairperson of the Board of Audit and Inspection, Board of Audit and Inspection members, and other public officials designated by law. 

Examples of such other public officials include prosecutors (Supreme Prosecutors’ Office Act), the commissioner general of the National Police Agency (National Police Agency Act), the chairperson of the Korea Communications Commission (Communications Commission Act), and the director and deputy director of the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO Act). While the motion to impeach is the jurisdiction of the National Assembly, the Constitutional Court has the ultimate authority in determining the legitimacy of the motion. In the past, the ultimate decision was given to the Impeachment Court (1948), the Impeachment Judgment Committee (1963), and the Constitution Committee (1972).  

For a long time after the establishment of the government of the Republic of Korea, the process of impeachment existed only on paper. In a time when the president was a de facto dictator, it was unthinkable for the National Assembly to dare to impeach the president. The National Assembly put forth its first impeachment motion after the 12th general election in 1985. The sudden formation of the New Korea Democratic Party allowed the political opposition to secure 128 National Assembly seats out of 276 (46%). 

Yoo Tai-heung, the chief justice of the Supreme Court at the time, stirred controversy in September 1985 by demoting a judge who pardoned a political prisoner. The Korean Bar Association responded by issuing a statement calling for Yoo’s resignation. On Oct. 18 of that year, all 102 members of the New Korea Democratic Party voted for a motion to impeach Yoo. The National Assembly held an anonymous vote on the motion on Oct. 21. The motion was rejected. Out of 247 votes, 95 were in favor, 146 were opposed, five were abstentions, and one was invalid. 

Exceeding the 34 votes necessary to impeach Park Geun-hye

After the Yoo incident, there were numerous motions to impeach various officials, but none of them were passed, for various reasons. Few of these motions reached the plenary session of the National Assembly for a vote. In December 1994, during the Kim Young-sam administration, a motion to impeach Prosecutor General Kim Do-eon made it to the National Assembly’s plenary session, but was rejected. In April 1999, during the Kim Dae-jung administration, a motion to impeach Prosecutor General Kim Tae-joung made it to the National Assembly, but was also rejected. 

Finally, on March 12, 2004, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach President Roh Moo-hyun. It’s notable that the first instance of an impeachment motion passing a National Assembly vote targeted an incumbent president. Among the 195 votes cast, a whopping 193 were in favor, with only two opposed. At the time of the vote, a total of 271 lawmakers sat in the National Assembly. The quorum to pass the impeachment motion was 181 votes. 

On Dec. 9, 2016, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach President Park Geun-hye. Out of 299 votes cast, 234 were in favor, 56 were opposed, two were abstentions, and seven were invalid. A total of 300 lawmakers sat in the National Assembly, and the quorum for passing the motion was 200 votes. 

As we entered the 2020s, the impeachment floodgates were opened. In July 2020, a motion to impeach Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae made it to the National Assembly, but did not pass. In February 2021, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Lim Seong-guen, a former senior judge at the Seoul Central District Court; the Constitutional Court then dismissed the motion. 

In February 2023, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach Lee Sang-min, the minister of the interior and safety. This was also dismissed by the Constitutional Court. In September 2023, the National Assembly passed a motion to impeach public prosecutor Ahn Dong-wan. Once again, the Constitutional Court dismissed the motion. In November 2023, the National Assembly passed motions to impeach public prosecutors Son Jun-sung and Lee Jeong-seop. Constitutional Court judgments on these motions are currently pending. 

On July 2, the Democratic Party referred a motion to impeach prosecutors Kang Baek-shin, Kim Young-cheol, Park Sang-yong, and Uhm Hee-joon to the National Assembly's Legislation and Judiciary Committee. If the committee approves the motion, the National Assembly will hold a vote. 

Ultimately, the only person who has been successfully outed by an impeachment motion is former President Park Geun-hye, owing to both National Assembly approval and the Constitutional Court’s ruling. 

Treacherous waters can capsize the boat

What’s to become of the movement to impeach President Yoon Suk-yeol? As mentioned before, the National Assembly quorum for an impeachment motion makes the process of approval very difficult. Presently, the political opposition parties seem very cautious. This is good fortune for Yoon. 

Appearing on a radio broadcast of the Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation on July 2, Cho Kuk, former leader of the Rebuilding Korea Party, remarked, “We are still short on the fuel required to power the engine that leads to impeachment. We need more concrete evidence regarding the illicit behavior of the president and the first lady.”  

During a general meeting of party legislators on July 4, Park Chan-dae, floor leader and acting chair of the Democratic Party, declared, “We should take seriously the public’s rage, which spreads like bushfire.”

“The pending approval of a special counsel bill to investigate the death of a Marine corporal will determine the capacity of the Yoon administration to alter its governance,” Park added.

The message was basically a warning to Yoon, indicating that the Democratic Party will not put the pedal to the metal on impeachment — for now. 

Lee Jung-mi, the acting president of the Constitutional Court, reads the court’s decision issued on March 10, 2017, impeaching Park Geun-hye. (pool photo)
Lee Jung-mi, the acting president of the Constitutional Court, reads the court’s decision issued on March 10, 2017, impeaching Park Geun-hye. (pool photo)

I’m curious as to whether you, Dear Reader, believe it is possible to impeach Yoon. Actually, let me rephrase that. Why do you think the Constitutional Court dismissed the motion to impeach Roh Moo-hyun but approved the one to impeach Park Geun-hye? Jurists will tell you that it’s all about the “extent” to which the Constitution or the law was violated.  

But I don’t agree. When it comes to impeaching the president, an elected official who holds the country’s highest political position, I think that public sentiment is a much more influential factor than the “extent” of the president’s unconstitutional and illegal actions. The motion to impeach Roh Moo-hyun in March 2004 was led by the opposition, the Hannara Party and the Millennium Democratic Party, who pushed for impeachment despite the risk of losing public support. This strategy cost them the 17th general election in April 2004, when both parties suffered huge defeats. The Constitutional Court dismissed the motion on May 14. 

The campaign to impeach Park Geun-hye in 2016-2017, however, was greatly fueled by public outrage over a shadow government. On Dec. 9, 2016, a whopping 234 lawmakers voted in favor of the motion to impeach Park — 78% of the 300 seats in the National Assembly. This is nearly identical to the percentage of people who supported impeachment in public polls at the time. On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court unanimously approved the impeachment motion, driving her out of office. 

Public sentiment is what ultimately determines whether or not a president is impeached. Yoon should take this lesson from history. Yet recent remarks from both the president and his staff indicate that such lessons have been lost on them. When questioned on alleged state interference in the investigation into the death of a Marine corporal by the House Steering Committee on July 1, Chung Jin-suk, the president’s chief of staff, stated, “The crux of the case is that Col. Park Jeong-hun disobeyed orders from the minister of national defense to report the investigation’s details and to hold off on the investigation until further notice.” Chung’s remarks displayed a remarkable disconnect with public sentiment. 

During a Cabinet meeting on July 2, Yoon declared, “If the politics of conflict and confrontation continue to repeat themselves, we will not be able to overcome the challenges before us.” It sounded like he was absolving himself of any responsibility for the current political breakdown. When the National Assembly passed a bill to assign a special prosecutor to the case of the dead Marine, a high-ranking official from the presidential office responded by saying, “Here we are, at yet another anti-Constitution special counsel bill, a constitutional violation on top of another constitutional violation. I lament this infringement that puts a stain on our Constitutional history.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Yoon and his top aides are pouring gas on the fire that is the public’s rage. It’s truly disastrous. 

Sensing the ominous trajectory of events, conservative commentators have started stepping in. Yang Sang-hoon, a Chosun Ilbo columnist, published a piece on July 4 titled, “An Eerie Political Landscape Reminiscent of the 2016 Impeachment.” General election defeats have reduced the ruling power to a parliamentary minority. The president’s approval ratings are low. Controversy over shadow interests and behind-the-scenes activity is brewing. Rifts are forming within the conservative party. Yang says all of these elements were present in 2016. Is he right? 

Let’s wrap this up. Shortly after Park’s impeachment at the end of 2016, the Kyosu Shinmun announced that the paper’s Hanja (Chinese character) idiom of the year was, “The king is the ship, but the people are the water.” The water can make the ship float, but if its waves become treacherous, the boat will capsize. Words for the current president to heed wisely. What do you think, Dear Reader? 

By Seong Han-yong, senior staff writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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