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(News Focus) In wake of scandal, hopes grow for mature democracy, fair society in S. Korea

2017/03/16 17:11

SEOUL, March 16 (Yonhap) -- The deepening crisis over a sweeping corruption scandal and the ensuing ouster of the president could have a silver lining for South Korea as it brought home to its citizens, officials and business elites the urgency of reforms for a mature democracy, social justice and fairer economy.

The scandal involving former President Park Geun-hye and her longtime friend and shadowy adviser laid bare the country's flawed democratic system and deep-rooted corruptive ties between those in political and economic powers.

As the nation is still grappling with the scandal's fallout, hopes are growing that South Korea will unite for a new national transition as it weathered past crises, including the financial meltdown in the late 1990s.

"Though the scandal has brought to the fore the dark sides of our country, it prompted much-needed soul-searching over how we can work together to move towards a more transparent, clean society," Won Kyu-wang, a high-school teacher in Goyang, west of Seoul, told Yonhap News Agency.

"I think we are now on course towards a more consolidated democracy."

   Over the past five months, South Korea has been gripped by the scandal that triggered vociferous yet peaceful nationwide protests against Park, and led to her impeachment in December and the Constitutional Court's unprecedented ruling to dismiss her last Friday.

The scandal gained keen public attention last October when the local news cable channel JTBC raised the allegations that Park had allowed her friend Choi Soon-sil -- with no government post -- to meddle in important state affairs.

Since then, a string of fresh allegations have emerged, including the accusations that Park colluded with Choi in extorting money and favors from local conglomerates such as Samsung Group and played a role in blacklisting cultural figures deemed critical of her administration.

Park has denied all of her charges, ranging from bribery to abuse of power.

This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows former President Park Geun-hye and the main room of the Constitutional Court in Seoul. (Yonhap) This image, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows former President Park Geun-hye and the main room of the Constitutional Court in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Throughout the scandal, citizens have played a pivotal role in calling for a major change towards a "genuine" democracy. Braving sub-zero temperatures, they have rallied almost every weekend to call for change -- a reason why many say Park was ousted through a "civil revolution."

   Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, said that the political scandal will be remembered as a defining -- albeit unsavory -- moment of the nation's democracy and has led the nation to a new era when citizens themselves play a role as "active practitioners" of democratic principles.

"Citizens used to be those who just elected a leader and allowed him or her to lead the nation," he told Yonhap News.

"But throughout the scandal, they have morphed into those who can bring down a national leader through peaceful means if he or she engaged in any wrongdoings and even chart a direction themselves for the nation to move forward," he told Yonhap News.

Lee Jung-mi, a retired Constitutional Court justice, described the national crisis as a "painful process to become a more mature democracy."

   "I believe that the governance crisis and social conflicts that we are currently experiencing are pains that we undergo in the process of consolidating our constitutional values -- the democracy, rule of law and protection of human rights," she said during her retirement ceremony on Monday.

This photo, taken on March 13, 2017, shows Lee Jung-mi, a retired Constitutional Court justice, speaking during her retirement ceremony at the court in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on March 13, 2017, shows Lee Jung-mi, a retired Constitutional Court justice, speaking during her retirement ceremony at the court in Seoul. (Yonhap)

In the wake of the scandal, earnest discussions are under way at the National Assembly over making a long-overdue change to the Constitution to reshape the country's government structure that grants inordinate power to a single leader. Analysts have cited the power structure as a major reason why the president is prone to corruption.

In recent polls, a majority of citizens have also backed the change, heaping pressure on the legislature to seek a revision to better check the presidential authority and make the configuration of state power more balanced.

With the nation striving to move beyond the scandal, many citizens, including political leaders, have underscored their experience in successfully overcoming past challenges through unity.

In the thick of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, citizens carried out a nationwide gold collection drive to support the government. Millions of people voluntarily joined the campaign with their gold rings, necklaces and watches to help tide the economy over the crisis.

In 2007, the country had the worst oil spill off the coast of Taean, 150 kilometers south of Seoul, when a crane-carrying barge rammed into an oil tanker, causing some 66,000 barrels of crude oil to gush into the waters. Citizens from across the country rushed there to join the clean-up efforts.

In a 2014 ferry disaster, citizens were also united and assisted through voluntary work and financial contributions to quickly overcome the tragedy that killed more than 300 passengers, mostly high-school students.

Pinning hopes on the country's collective capability to overcome the current crisis, Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has repeatedly called for national solidarity.

"National unity and integration provide the core foundation for overcoming the crisis (facing the nation)," Hwang said during a ceremony marking the 57th anniversary of a historic pro-democracy uprising in Changwon, 398 kilometers south of Seoul.

"If we are sharply divided, security, the economy and people's livelihoods will only be like a house of cards."

  

This photo, taken on March 15, 2017, shows Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn speaking during a Cabinet meeting at the central government complex in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on March 15, 2017, shows Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn speaking during a Cabinet meeting at the central government complex in Seoul. (Yonhap)

With a presidential election to pick Park's successor some two months away, citizens also hope the electoral process will create fresh momentum to heal social and political division and restore national unity.

"This year's presidential election should be an opportunity to restore national unity and integration beyond conflict and division," Kim Yong-deok, the chairperson of the National Election Commission (NEC), said Saturday.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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