The beginning of 2017 was a chaotic period for South Korean politics. The public was enraged when then-president Park Geun-hye’s close friend Choi Soon-sil intervened in politics and took illegal profits from her connections.
This so-called Choi Soon-sil gate that started in late October 2016 thrust South Korea into political limbo, which culminated in the court upholding the impeachment of Park in a unanimous 8-0 decision on March 10, 2017.
Since then, many tangible changes have taken place. Moon Jae-in was elected president on May 9, 2017. The ruling conservative Liberty Korea Party lost that year’s election and one in 2020, and the Democratic Party of Korea has become the incumbent majority party. There were also dramatic reversals of policies on multiple fronts, such as energy, education, welfare, and wealth redistribution.
While these are tangible changes, more insidious consequences of the impeachment are weighing down on South Korea.
Stereotypes against women
I have already written on why the gender gap is not just stupid, but harmful to the economy. Basically, the sex gap leads to underuse of half of a nation’s workforce and hence creates incentives for preferences of boys over girls. Such imbalances can lead to social problems and lower economic growth.
Park’s impeachment has contributed to intensifying the perception that women tend to be more emotional than men, and thus cannot be relied upon. It may be a bit of stretch to make such an argument, but it is undeniable that Korean women trying to become leaders in any organization will be met with more suspicious eyes because of Park’s precedent.
Annihilation of the right
Since the scandal, any conservative or right-wing political view has been associated with incompetency and corruption. As Park’s supporters mainly come from older generations who tend to be more conservative, the younger generation has been the main front of the crowd calling for changes.
The fall of the conservative regime was, in large part, due to its mishandling of politics and its incompetence. However, the problem now is that even constructive and healthy conservatism is branded and mocked as corrupt and incompetent, thereby preventing any potential for negotiation and a balanced approach to solving problems.
Indiscriminate attacks on right-wing views and policies, augmented by negative feelings toward the Park scandal, have been more pronounced.
Repudiation of legacies of Park Chung-hee
Park Geun-hye is the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who was president from 1963 until his assassination in 1979. He is criticized for being a dictator, and yet is credited for developing the economy and laying the foundation for many of Korea’s core heavy industries, such as petrochemicals, ship building and automobiles.
Thus Park Chung-hee’s achievements and mistakes have always been politically controversial. While the conservative spectrum of political parties and the older generation largely credit his contribution and leadership in developing the Korean economy, the left, progressive spectrum of political parties and younger generation mainly focus on his oppression.
With the impeachment of Park Geun-hye – and subsequent intensification of the image of conservative politics as being corrupt – even the positive legacies of Park Chung-hee are now largely discredited. Because of the anger toward the impeached president, the current political and social environments make it hard even to have constructive debates on the past.
Throughout history, Koreans have (or at least believe that they have) suffered a great deal from incompetence, corruption and irresponsibility of the ruling class. Thus Koreans are very skeptical about politicians and tired of corruption news.
The problem with this mistrust is that there is so-called “trust cost.” In economics, trust is not just a belief but social capital that reduces transaction costs among the members of society and improves efficiency.
When there is a low level of trust in a society, every transaction is not performed optimally because it entails verification costs. Parties do not put in their best efforts because of suspicions of the other parties, thereby lowering productivity as a whole in society.
South Koreans already have low confidence and trust in their government and society, and the impeachment of Park has only perpetuated their belief that this time is no different from other times.
In sum, the impeachment of Park brought many dramatic changes to South Korea. Whether the tangible changes have been positive or negative will be contingent upon the performance of the incumbent party and President Moon, but the intangible changes mentioned above are rather more sinister and thus could be more harmful to Korean society in the long run.
This article is originally from Joon’s Blog. Joon Young Kwon holds a master’s degree in international economics and finance from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and currently works as an economics and finance consultant in Singapore. He runs his own blog and language-learning YouTube channel.