On Sunday, ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye left the Blue House presidential compound and returned to her private residence in southern Seoul two days after South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously ruled to remove her from office over charges of graft and corruption. The unanimous ruling strips Park of immunity from prosecution, clearing the way for her to face criminal charges. The ruling followed months of mass protests. Park’s power had been sharply reduced since December, when South Korea’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to impeach her. We speak to University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings and Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday, ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye left the Blue House presidential compound and returned to her private residence in southern Seoul two days after South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously ruled to remove her from office over charges of graft and corruption. The unanimous ruling strips Park of immunity from prosecution, clearing the way for her to face criminal charges. Park’s power had been sharply reduced since December, when South Korea’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to impeach her. On Sunday, she offered a brief statement about her impeachment through a spokesperson.
MIN KYUNG–WOOK: [translated] [reading] “I, former President Park Geun-hye, apologize that I cannot finish my mandate as a president. I appreciate all the people who have trusted in me and supported me. I take responsibility for the outcome of all of this. It will take time, but I believe the truth will be revealed.
AMY GOODMAN: A new election will be held in 60 days. The upheaval in South Korea comes days after North Korea test-fired several ballistic missiles and as the Trump administration is deploying a missile defense system to South Korea. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of South Korea and US troops, backed by warships and warplanes, are currently engaging in a massive military exercise. Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that the US and North Korea are, quote, “like two accelerating trains coming toward each other.” He called on both sides to de-escalate tensions. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading for his first trip to Asia later this week, stopping in Japan, South Korea and China. In a break with precedent, Tillerson is not traveling with members of the press.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Chicago, Illinois, we’re joined by Bruce Cumings, professor of history at the University of Chicago. He’s the author of several books on Korea, including Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History and North Korea: Another Country. And we’re joined here in New York by Christine Ahn, founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ, a global movement of women mobilizing for peace in Korea. Her recent article for Foreign Policy in Focus is headlined “South Korean Women Take On Trump.”
Professor Cumings, Christine Ahn, we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Christine, let’s start in South Korea. Talk about the significance of the president being removed.
CHRISTINE AHN: It’s extraordinary. And I would say it’s a really incredible outcome of months of organizing by mass movements to unseat this president that was obviously charged for political corruption but whose policies have really steered South Korea into a very dangerous situation that we are in today. And I think it’s extraordinary what people in mass movements can do, and I think it’s not just great for South Korea and for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but I think it’s a really great symbol for the rest of the world.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean what people in mass movements can do? How was the president of South Korea removed?
CHRISTINE AHN: Well, she was first moved by parliamentary vote to impeach her, and then, just recently, the Constitutional Court affirmed that decision. But it really took, you know, months of massive — millions of people taking to the streets, holding candlelight vigils, demanding her ouster, demanding that she be impeached.
And I think it’s a great day for social justice and democracy in South Korea. Her policies have been really bad for workers’ rights, for labor unions, for farmers, and it’s endangered Korea. And it’s worsened inter-Korean relations to the worst point, that just last year, you know, the Kaesong industrial complex, which was the economic zone that was established during the Sunshine Policy era, was — you know, between North and South Korea. It was within the Demilitarized Zone. And that was one step towards reconciliation, towards reunification. And she basically did away with that, you know? And that had a lot to do with her confidant, Choi Soon-sil, who was unlawfully giving her advice and was also tied to her corruption.
But I think it’s a new day for the Korean Peninsula. I hope that the US doesn’t take military action in this very dangerous hour, where there is a tremendous possibility for miscalculation. There is that political vacuum in South Korea, until, likely, Moon Jae-in, who is the leading contender for president, who was the chief of staff during Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal government that was, you know, carrying out the Sunshine Policy. And he has said he would reopen Kaesong. He has said, “We must return to talks with North Korea. We must acknowledge that Kim Jong-un is the leader of North Korea.” And so, hopefully, the US won’t do anything dangerous in the interim.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bruce Cumings, can you talk about how Park Geun-hye rose to power, how she was ousted, and also, as Christine was talking about, what this means for North-South Korean relations and the United States?
BRUCE CUMINGS: Well, Park Geun-hye was, of course the daughter of President Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated by his own intelligence chief in 1979, precipitating a crisis that led to another military coup. At this point, Park Geun-hye had been living in the Blue House, I think, for 10 or 11 years. She went into a kind of seclusion for a long time and then came out in the 1990s as a member of the National Assembly. She was elected, really, in reaction against Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, two progressive presidents who were in office from 1998 to 2008. And her constituency, as you can see from the protests in Seoul in favor of her, really consists of people who are still deeply anti-communist, anti-North Korean. They hate the North Koreans. They tend to be in their sixties, seventies, eighties. It’s obviously, therefore, a declining constituency. And she really, basically, lost her popular base in light of the corruption case that Christine was just talking about, which raised all kinds of historical memories for Koreans, because, in the past, kings and queens had relied on shamans and others to do their business, and this seemed to be a harking back to that. So she is one of the most unpopular presidents in Korean history, and now she’s gone.