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A trip to Seoul: some thoughts on the presidential impeachment and the world’s only Demilitarised Zone

Hong Kong Correspondent Rebecca Wilson offers an insightful look at the impeachment of South Korea's president in December of 2016 and the implications this may hold for potential reunification.

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Mass Protest in Cheonggye Plaza

Despite being in nearby Hong Kong, I wasn’t aware of much conversation about the Korean impeachment. I would have thought that with the tense democratic situation in Hong Kong, particularly the election of the new pro-Beijing Chief Executive – a move engineered by the Chinese government – and the removal of pro-independence lawmakers, that people would be more interested in the success of the Korean public to influence political powers. Hong Kong undoubtably suffers from oppression by Beijing, and peaceful protests in recent years have had virtually no success in swaying the system. There have been a number of surprises in democracy this past year or so, with Trump and Brexit defying the polls and leaving some people disenchanted about the power of their vote. Korea’s success in democracy rivals the shock of the American election result, but does not suffer from the same global attention.

it is remarkable that such an effective backlash has risen over something as non-lethal and corporate as bribery.

I’ll give some context to the impeachment. Cited by CNN as the president who was ‘impeached for being embarrassing’: South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, lost her power following accusations of bribery. On December 9th, 2016, the National Assembly voted for her impeachment, with 234 out of 300 people supporting the motion. Millions of South Koreans appeared in a succession of protests from October 2016 to March 2017: with an estimated 16 million protesters across the 20 rallies. The protest on the 3rd December was the largest seen in South Korea’s history, with 2.3 million people appearing nationwide. In an incredible testament to the power of democracy, their efforts resulted in the successful impeachment of their president.

The huge controversy is rooted in the former president’s close relationship with Miss Choi Soon-sil, who was accused of accepting the bribes – including from giant chaebols like Samsung. When Miss Choi was arrested, she was quoted saying: “Please, forgive me. I’m sorry. I committed a sin that deserves death’’. The ensuing protests had been controlled and protesters cleaned up after: they even became an opportunity for education, with parents bringing their children to see history in action. This changed on the 10th March, when the President was officially removed and the ensuing protests against the court’s decision caused several injuries and two deaths. It would be an oversimplification to call this ‘hurt feelings’ (CNN), but it is remarkable that such an effective backlash has risen over something as non-lethal and corporate as bribery.

Image republished with permission of Rebecca Wilson

When I travelled to Seoul in April on a weekend trip from Hong Kong, I stumbled upon a political rally for candidate number 6. I spoke to a middle-aged couple at this rally – which was watched warily by police and teemed with large, waving flags – who told me that they “fear for the future of Korea” and feel that Park was illegally impeached and should not be sent to prison. They called candidate 6 anti-communist, and said that although he was unlikely to win – he didn’t – they still wanted to show support for Park. The candidate who did win, Moon Jae-in, hopes to strengthen the economy, which includes economic and military unification with the North. I was considering a trip to North Korea when I found out that Hong Kong University offer discounted packages, but having been to Seoul and seen the War Museum, I was glad I didn’t. These tours not only give money to a dictatorship government, but they are a kind of ‘people zoo’: a tourist opportunity to see ‘real-life oppressed people’. It was visiting the Demilitarised Zone between the two nations that made me realise the severity and tenseness of the political situation, and the magnitude of Moon’s aspiration to unify.

I had not realised that there is so much interest in unification, so I was surprised when visiting the Demilitarised Zone that so many signs read “unification not separation”. This is the most famous Demilitarised Zone in the world – a kind of no-man’s-land, with designated places our tour bus could go to avoid suspected landmines. It is considered to be one of the most dangerous regions on Earth. We needed our passports to enter the zone, and they were checked on our way out to make sure no one was sneaking into North Korea. Our tour guide explained that the nation’s ideological differences have affected the physical environment: the mountains in the North are bare of trees, while the mountains we passed en route to the border were covered in greenery. In the North, people are much poorer and the government does not support them (words from the tour guide), so all the mountains have been harvested of trees to use as firewood.

Image republished with permission of Rebecca Wilson

The eeriest part of the trip was to the unused Dorasan station. South Korea have built a train station on the border in preparation for unification: this is a brand new, immaculate and empty building, from which only one train has ever departed into North Korea. It was not a success. The station is currently a tourist hotspot, with the timing for the solitary journey that occurred still visible on the timetable so you can take a photo in front of it. There is also the Piano of Unification, which is a piano fitted with barbed wire instead of piano wire to symbolise the disunity between North and South. You can even pay to stand on the empty platform and pretend you are going to cross the border. North Korea have been trying to infiltrate the South ever since the end of the war in 1953 – including crossing a frozen river to try to kill the president, and digging innumerable tunnels under the border. Of the three that have been discovered so far, one is actually open to the public. You can walk all the way underground in a cold, steep tunnel, to look through a window into a long tunnel, at the end of which is North Korea – no photos allowed. It is unbelievable how much of this military zone is a tourist site. Uniformed soldiers pose for photos at the top of the Third Tunnel of Aggression, and there are multiple photo stands for people to stand in front of. An interesting anecdote is that when this tunnel was discovered, the North pretended to be there for mining coal – it is a granite area – and even painted the walls of the tunnel black to pretend it was coal. Occasions like these make me wish my syllabus in Hong Kong was less anglocentric, because I feel like I’m still largely uninformed about this part of Asia.

I left Seoul with a lot of questions and a newfound interest in Korean politics. The main question raised by this story is: is the democratic success reproducible?

I left Seoul with a lot of questions and a newfound interest in Korean politics. The main question raised by this story is: is the democratic success reproducible? Does this give hope to places like America, England and Hong Kong, where there is a tension between millennials and their current political leaders? While the protests in Seoul have been so successful, the groundbreaking size of the woman’s march against Trump’s conservative views did not impact his policies on reproductive rights. Park’s impeachment itself may at least give hope to millennials after their lack of influence in recent, controversial western elections: the younger generation were largely anti-Trump and Brexit, and it is fair to say that those on the losing sides may have lost faith in the power of democracy. With Labour’s success in the recent British election, it looks like more young people are becoming engaged with politics, and this should hopefully increase if people can see evidence of democracy’s success. Insofar as Korean unification, I have no words on that topic. Only that Moon has a huge task ahead of him if he’s serious about a more conciliatory approach to the North.

The Piano of Unification (Image republished with permission of Rebecca Wilson)
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