SEOUL - A new South Korean conservative far-right coalition is forming to fight against what they say is the “illegal” impeachment of the duly elected president, Park Geun-hye, by the “lying media” and pro-North Korean “establishment elites.”
The pro-Park conservatives have been slow to organize in the wake of a presidential corruption scandal that erupted in October of last year.
“Maybe our attempts to rescue the president are too late, or a little bit late. Why? Because the whole thing was unexpected,” said Chulhong Kim, an associate professor at the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary in Seoul, who has become a leader of a new conservative group that has yet to become a formal organization.
President Park was brought down by allegations that she colluded with or was manipulated by her long time friend Choi Soon-sil, along with some close presidential aides, to force Korean conglomerates to donate nearly $65 million to two dubious foundations. Choi reportedly benefited from lucrative side contracts to companies owned by herself and her friends.
There were also other charges that outraged the public but carried less legal weight, that Choi used her presidential connections to gain her daughter admission into a prestigious university, and that Park was negligent in handling the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster that killed over 300 people, many of them school age children.
The fast moving scandal sparked weeks of widespread public protests across the country, and saw the president’s public approval rating plummet to below 10 percent. In December, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park, while at the same time appointing a special counsel to investigate the charges. Since then Park has been suspended from office while the Constitutional Court reviews the impeachment motion, that if upheld will result in an early presidential election some time this year.
The president’s defenders contend the impeachment legislative process is overtly political, pressured by bias media coverage and unduly influenced by public demonstrations, and legally flawed in convicting Park and suspending her from office before even holding official hearings.
“Under the current law, impeachment is not illegal but subsequently the immediate suspension of the president is against the principle of presumption of innocence,” said Professor Kim.
Protests and term limits
Over the weekend, both pro and anti-impeachment demonstrations were held in Seoul and across the country.
Korean media reported that 750,000 pro-impeachment supporters held a candlelight vigil on Saturday evening in downtown Gwanghwamun Square despite freezing temperatures that dropped to minus 9 degrees Celsius. Moon Jae-in, a progressive leader of the opposition Democratic Party and the leading presidential contender in opinion polls, joined with the demonstrators, saying that, “the voices of the people are the constitution.”
The renewed surge of protesters coming out against President Park reflects concerns the Constitution Court could become deadlocked if they do not soon conclude their judicial review.
The nine member Constitutional Court must reach the required quorum of six votes to uphold the impeachment motion. However the court is already down to eight members as the term of the chief justice ended in January. Another justice will reach his term limit in March. Then the court will be down to seven members, but six votes will still be required to reach a verdict. And Constitutional Court justices cannot be replaced until the impeachment issue is resolved.
Park’s supporters also held a rally earlier on Saturday in front of City Hall. Media reports say the number of anti-impeachment demonstrators reached over 200,000, but organizers claim that more than a million people participated.
The hardline pro-Park organizers discount mainstream media reports, saying they are biased against the president and her ruling Saenuri Party, and working with opposition groups to topple the president.
“I want (to say to the) dishonest media, you, please, do not deceive our people,” said Jiyeon Ihn, an activist and attorney that heads us up a group called Now! Act for North Koreans! (NANK.)
At the conservative rallies, American flags are proudly displayed. The deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense system is widely supported. And China objections about increasing U.S. military capabilities, and reservations expressed by opposition leaders, are loudly jeered.
Many of these Korean far-right activists see Park’s impeachment as part of an insidious leftist, communist movement backed by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“If the attempt succeeds the future government would be pro-North Korean, anti-American, anti-free market, anti-human rights. It would inaugurate a unified communist regime in the Korean Peninsula,” said Professor Kim.
Unable to get their views expressed in traditional news outlets, the new Korean far-right is spreading the word through social media. While their rallies are still smaller than their opponents, they say their movement is growing. And even if President Park’s impeachment is upheld, these conservatives intend to become an influential political force in future elections.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report in Seoul