The hundreds of thousands of South Koreans who have taken to the streets of Seoul in protest against President Park Geun-hye have done so peacefully in what one long-term resident described as an almost “carnival atmosphere.”
Police on the streets have politely guided mothers with children in pushchairs and whole families have joined the candle-lit protests to demand the impeachment or otherwise removal of the president.
On Saturday night, rally organizers said about 1.3 million gathered in Seoul in the fifth consecutive weekend of protests.
Events in the coming days will decide if the demonstrations remain polite and peaceful or whether anger boils over into the sort of clashes Seoul has seen before involving bricks, blood and tear gas.
On one level, the scandal isn’t out of the ordinary in that it involves allegations of corruption, bribery, and individuals using powerful friends to line their pockets, said Michael Breen, an author on Korean affairs and long-time Seoul resident.
Yet among Koreans there is a palpable sense of betrayal and anger that the president was seemingly answerable to a confidant Choi Soon-sil, who is now under arrest, rather than to the people she was elected to represent, he said.
What could add to the anger on the streets is hints from prosecutors at the weekend that audio files found on a confiscated smartphone of Park’s aide Jung Ho-sung may contain information that incriminates the president.
A prosecutor involved in the case told reporters that “only 10 seconds of an audio file would be long enough for people to storm the streets with torches, instead of candles,” according to a report in the Korea Times on Monday.
While Park’s spokesman has strongly denied all the allegations, the president’s approval rating has dropped to a record low of 4%, which raises speculation about control of law enforcement if the head of government is so despised.
The South Korean assembly may vote as early as this week on whether the impeachment of the president should be considered by the country’s constitutional court. An impeachment bill would need the support of at least 200 members of the 300-seat National Assembly.
If the bill passes, as seems possible according to reports in Korea’s media, Park would be suspended and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn would become acting president. The Constitutional Court would then have 180 days to rule whether her impeachment was justified.
Simply speaking, grounds for impeachment are incapacitation or no longer capable of ruling, said Breen. While the anger of the public is real, the question will be is the president liable for impeachment under the law, he said.