Political division strains unity in South Korean society
Published: Mar 15, 2017 08:18 PM

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

South Korea's Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye on March 10, putting an end to the political career of the first female president in Korean history.

 Since South Korea resumed democratic presidential elections in 1987, all the presidents since then were involved in political scandals and ended their terms in disgrace.

This is related to the prevailing cronyism in South Korean politics, coupled with the fact that the biggest family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol, wield influences from behind the scenes. Like her predecessors, Park failed to eliminate chaebol politics.

Park's impeachment reflects the sharp division in the present-day South Korean politics. Last November in Seoul, I witnessed hundreds of thousands protestors holding candles, calling for Park to step down while at the same time, the pro-Park camp gathered in strong support of the president. Therefore, it wasn't a surprise when I heard a Park supporter committed suicide after the impeachment was announced.

 Demonstration is an indispensable part in South Korean society, in which differences among varied social groups are embodied. This time, the months-long demonstration concerning Park was overall peaceful, with only a few people died. But sharp confrontations can hardly be eliminated in the short term. Upon mentioning Park Geun-hye, people are always reminded of her father, Park Chung-hee, a very controversial figure. To understand the story behind the rise of South Korea, one must look at the "Miracle on the Han River" during the Park Chung-hee administration. But, the former president's dictatorship and cruelty was a dark period during South Korea's transition to democracy.

The success and failure of Park Geun-hye reflects the same political strife. The anti-Park camp and pro-Park camp demonstrated at the Gwanghwamun Square with a common pursuit of the rule of law. But they came into conflict over safeguarding democracy or patriotism. 

The confrontations in South Korean society are also a reflection of the country's position in East Asian geopolitics. The division on the Korean Peninsula is a subject that cannot be bypassed. In modern history, South Korea has struggled for survival amid power-wrangling in the region. But, its efforts to seek national dignity often went to the extreme and despite its attempts to maintain a balance among strong powers, it often failed.

South Koreans' top priority is national unification. The sense of national identity is the root cause of their reliance on external forces to achieve unity. That is also why they feel frustrated that they still have US troop stationed in their territory and hold strong anti-American sentiments.

Shortly after Park Geun-hye took office, she hoped to promote the reunification of the peninsula through providing humanitarian assistance to North Korea, allowing families separated by the Korea War to reunite on a regular basis, helping North Korea install electricity, and develop transportation and communication infrastructure. But, eventually, she returned her focus to strengthen the alliance with the US.

Park's removal provides an opportunity for the opposition, who hopes to reestablish a balance among big powers, but the question remains unchanged: Who can provide support for a unified Korean peninsula and sustainable peace?

The author is a senior editor with People's Daily, and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. dinggang@globaltimes.com.cn. Follow him on Twitter @dinggangchina