‘Chimaek’ means ‘chicken and beer’. It’s a bit of a Korean tradition – a genius idea which, as the name suggests, combines two great things: chicken, and beer. And it has become the new favourite for myself and three mates since we arrived in South Korea four days ago. Tonight, we’ve managed to eat a seemingly impossible amount of chicken, to the point at which I feel both sick and gratified.
My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a BBC news update. Normally, I would welcome a news update like this: what is happening around the world? What has Trump done this time? What has Turnbull not done? As a politics student, I feel obliged to be at least partially aware of what is happening around the globe.
But I don’t have time for politics right now. I’m on holiday, enjoying a chimaek with my friends. I’ll refocus on politics when I get back to Canberra. However, before I put my phone back, my eye is caught by the headline sprawled across my phone screen.
‘Hundreds of thousands march in Seoul to demand Park Geun-hye resign’
Seoul? Here? With the chimaek? Hundreds of thousands of protesters? I can’t help noticing the number of protestors: 500,000. That is 150,000 more people than the entire population of Canberra. And they are 900 metres from our hostel.
So, how did this happen?
It became apparent that (now former) South Korean President Park Geun-Hye had been sharing information with what The Economist noted as a ‘close confidante’ by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, who did not have a position in the government. Choi had used this position of power to seek donations of money from businesses to foundations that she controlled. These were large businesses that The Korea Times outlined to include the likes of Samsung, Hyundai and Lotte.
Choi’s influence did not stop here. It was reported that her power extended to advising the president on normal, everyday affairs. In October, the Hankyoreh reported that Choi was receiving ‘presidential report packets’ from the Blue House on a daily basis and then advising the president on matters relating to state affairs. This degree of influence and notoriety has led to political pundits at The Guardian labelling her as Korea’s ‘female Rasputin’. Revelations of misconduct angered the public, and this wave of discontent was reflected in the polls: By November, The Washington Post reported that Park’s approval ratings had fallen to four – five per cent.
My friends and I are visiting Deoksugung Palace in central Seoul. Deoksugung Palace was inhabited by members of Korea’s royal family during the Joseon monarchy until the colonial period. The structures are beautiful and ornate, built in traditional Korean style. My phone buzzes in my pocket. I know better than to ignore it.
‘South Korea President Park Geun-hye impeached, could face criminal proceedings’
I can’t believe how lucky I am. I’m admiring South Korea’s rich history of the past while the history of the present unfolds before me. The impeachment was passed with a strong majority of 234 voters in a 300-voter assembly.
‘It’s about time’. A man overheard us talking and commented as he walked past.
So, four months on, where does this leave South Korea? Well, Choi Soon-Sil has been officially charged. Prime Minister Hwang-Kyo-Ahn has assumed the presidential powers as Acting President until a new president is elected around May.
Moon-Jae In is currently the favourite to win the upcoming election to replace Ms Park. He is running as the candidate for the Moonji Party or the Democratic Party of Korea, and he will bring a more liberal outlook, in contrast to Ms Park, whose Liberty Korea Party is regarded as centre-right. Moon-Jae is of more humble upbringings; his father was a peasant farmer and he grew up poor. This down-to-earth attitude may be what is required in a period where leaders need to be trusted. If he is elected, Moon-Jae will move the presidential office from the Blue House to Gwanghwamun, the district in Seoul where millions protested against Ms Park. Moreover, he claims that he will ‘do away’ with the presidential guard and use police protection instead. This is his way of reconnecting with the people on a more human level.
It is disappointing that the first female President of South Korea failed to effectively lead her country. However, her removal from power is a win for democracy and shows South Korea’s effective transition since democratic structures replaced dictatorship in the late 1980s. South Korea’s democracy is unique as it consists of a unicameral ‘National Assembly’. This assembly is nevertheless powerful, and may hold the president accountable through an impeachment vote. The Constitutional Court then holds the responsibility of either confirming or rejecting the impeachment. This system of checks and balances is reminiscent of democracies in the West and has remained strong at a time of great turbulence.
It is also a testament to the will of the people, whose protests increased pressure on the parliament to reach a solution and ultimately contributed towards the outcome.
So, while the country may be in a period of minor political instability AS it elects another president, the situation is being resolved in the correct manner.
Ultimately, I experienced more than just chimaek during my time in Seoul. I got to see firsthand the democratic process that has ensured people are being held accountable when it is truly needed.