Park Geun-hye Unraveling VII: The Impeachment Bill and Park’s Response

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Inbok Rhee (UCSD)
January 9, 2017 7:00 AM

It has been approximately one month since the National Assembly voted to impeach Park Geun-hye. Since then, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has been temporarily holding the presidential office. Today we dive into the text of the impeachment bill (full text in Korean here) and the responses of both Park and the Court; next week, we will follow up with political developments since Park was removed from office. We have linked previous posts on the scandal at the bottom.

The Impeachment Bill

The impeachment requires showing that the president violated core features of the Constitution, her oath of office and other laws governing the operation of the presidency. The National Assembly thus went with a fairly wide-ranging indictment that included thirteen separate grounds for impeachment. The Constitutional Court subsequently broke the charges down into five key areas although there were also a few more particular questions that strike us as equally if not more damning:

  • Citing a number of basic constitutional provisions and the presidential oath of office, the impeachment bill accused Park of using state power to advance her personal interests and those of Choi Soon-sil.
  • In contravention of stated constitutional responsibilities to make appointments and without discrimination, the impeachment bill accuses Park of ceding key personnel decisions to Choi Soon-sil, including the minister and vice minister of culture and presidential secretaries.
  • Park is accused of violating provisions of the constitution with respect to the integrity of private property and freedom, including corporate freedoms, through bribery and influence peddling vis-a-vis private firms.
  • In violation of freedom of speech and the integrity of the fourth estate, Park is accused of coercing the media by attempting to force withdrawal of news about Choi Soon-sil and forcing the head of the Segye Ilbo to resign.
  • Tacked on by the opposition at the last minute, the bill of impeachment accuses the president of failure to take appropriate action following the sinking of the Sewol ferry. This charge was grounded—fairly weakly in our view—in Article 10 of the Constitution, which focuses on human dignity and pursuit of happiness.  

In addition to these broad charges about failure to meet presidential obligations, the National Assembly also forwarded a list of charges involving the MIR and K-Sports Foundations, the major chaebols, and illegal dissemination of classified material.

The criminal acts related to the MIR and K-Sports Foundations involved eight chaebols: Hyundai Motors, CJ, SK, Samsung, LG, Hanwha, and Hanjin with charges with respect to Lotte entered on somewhat different terms given the particulars of the case. The charges also note the secret meetings between the firms and both Park and Ahn Jong-beom, Senior Presidential Secretary for Economic Affairs. These crimes can be traced to Article 129, 130 or 132 of the Criminal Act, which permits punishment of up to life imprisonment for large-scale bribery and specifically mentions payments of bribes to third parties. These charges also invoke particular prohibitions against abuse of authority (Article 123) and coercion (Article 324).

In addition to the actions with respect to the donors to the foundations, the indictment also notes special treatment and benefits channeled directly to Choi Soon-sil through favors extracted from five firms: the KD Corporation, Playground, POSCO, KT, and Grand Korea Leisure.  In each of these cases, President Park purportedly gave direct guidance to Ahn Jong-beom to put pressure on the companies, as revealed from Ahn’s work journal and phone records. In each of these cases, the impeachment bill has a section to the effect that “because the firm in question feared direct and indirect negative consequences to their business, including tax audits or difficulties in obtaining registration or permissions, they had no choice but to comply with the Blue House requests.” These charges are likely to face close scrutiny.

Finally, at least 47 documents with highly classified information were passed by the president to Choi Soon-sil in violation to quite explicit provisions on the divulgence of state secrets (Article 127).

Park’s Response (see full-text in Korean here)

Park has crafted a similarly wide-ranging response to the charges which rests on a number of core claims, including relying on the self-interest of the firms to remain silent and flat denial of knowledge of wrongdoing committed by Choi Soon-sil. These responses can be grouped in line with Court’s interpretation of the impeachment bill as well.

  • On advancing her own personal interests, Park claims that she never received any personal material gain from the alleged actions. Moreover, Park pleads ignorance: she was not aware of any pursuit of personal gain by Choi and in any case the charges against Choi have yet to be proven. At the same time, Park leaves open the option of giving up her friend by noting that any criminal actions that might have been committed by Choi cannot be grounds to impeach Park (Section 3, Article 13 of the Constitution states “No citizen shall suffer unfavorable treatment on account of an act not of his own doing but committed by a relative.”)
  • Park claims that she thoroughly reviewed all relevant personnel appointment decisions in question. Even if she took into consideration advice or recommendations from close confidants, the appointments were ultimately the President’s decision and thus did not violate any law.
  • Denying that any pressure was placed on the media, the President nonetheless exploits weak protections of free speech by claiming that she was simply demanding correction of false statements. Such demands from the president do not equate to the violation of freedom of media or speech. At a deeper level, Park claims that much of the evidence against is from media reports which are lacking in objectivity and credibility.
  • With respect to the solicitation of funds, Park argues that none of the firms were forced to donate to the foundations. All donations were voluntary, as the relevant witnesses from the firms have also—not surprisingly—confirmed. Moreover, she simply denies any allegations of quid pro quos and claims that none have been proven to date.
  • While Park acknowledges there may have been some shortcomings in the initial reaction to some national disasters such as that involving the Sewol, the President took every effort possible to respond and any failures do not rise to the status of an impeachable offense.

The Response of the Constitutional Court

On Dec 22nd, the main judge in the case Kang Il-won first outlined the court’s approach to the grouping of the charges. South Korean media and observers of the court generally interpreted this initial statement as a signal that the Court will move quickly. A number of other signals pointed in the same direction:

  • The Constitutional Court rejected the objections raised by President Park’s lawyers regarding the use of the results of investigations made by the Special Task Force of the Prosecutors’ Office and the Special Prosecutors’ Office, also adding to the expectation that the decision will be reached sooner than initially expected (for example here)
  • The Court decided to hold the first public hearings on Jan 3rd and 5th, which has been also interpreted as signs of its resolve to end things quickly. This means that the Court will hold two hearings a week, which is at an unprecedented pace.
  • The Court has also cancelled all other events that have been scheduled for the end/start of the year, and put all its manpower to the impeachment case. All the judges other than those formally assigned to the case have also been assigned to support the research for the case.

Some experts have even predicted that a decision could come as early as Jan 23rd. (See sources here and here). Ruling by the 23rd would mean before the Lunar New Year holiday, and before Judge Park Han-cheol is set to retire on the 31st.  Alternatively, others have predicted that the ruling would be made around Mar 31st, right before Judge Lee Jeong-mi is set to retire. There is currently one vacancy on the Court and unlike other hearings all sitting judges participate. The impeachment decision requires six votes, so the margin of error is small and all except two were appointed by Lee Myung-bak or Park herself.

Conclusion

Park Geun-hye has decided to fight the Constitutional Court proceedings but has suffered legal setbacks. She has a clear incentive to drag out the process as long as possible to try to take advantage of scheduled retirements on the bench that could make upholding her removal less likely. In addition, political calculations might be in play: the longer the delay, the more time her preferred successor, most likely Ban Ki-moon would have to prepare for the election, even though he has not yet formally joined the Saenuri Party. Next we will look at the Saenuri meltdown and prospects for the top candidates.

 

Previous posts on the Park-Choi scandal:

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