Divided nation awaits verdict on Park Geun Hye

Angela Jung, March 9, 2017, 9:16 a.m.

The Constitutional Court will announce today its ruling in President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment trial, but it may not be the end of the turmoil that has consumed South Korea for months. No matter the verdict for Park, the warring supporters and foes of the conservative leader are likely to continue their bitter acrimony, with some even threatening to reject what they think of as the “wrong” decision. 

Wary of this, leaders in religion, politics and civil society on Thursday called for unity, urging both sides to respect the top court and yield to whatever the outcome may be.

“The Constitutional Court ruling cannot satisfy everyone. Extreme conflict, strife and disobedience of the stern ruling will only lead to catastrophe,” Archbishop Kim Hee-joong of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea said in a statement. 

The message was echoed by National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun and many other senior leaders. 

“For at least 100 days, or even up to six months, the country failed to function normally, causing many people to suffer,” Chung said during a meeting with senior lawmakers from rival parties. “The parliament must play a key role in bringing people together and allow the country to put things behind and move on.” 

After a historic three-month trial of Park, the court is to rule at 11 a.m. Friday. 

If the court upholds the embattled president’s impeachment, she would be removed from office permanently. In the opposite case, she would immediately regain her full presidential powers and duties.

A poll released Monday showed only about 50 percent of the public was willing to accept the court’s decision regardless of the result. Nearly 45 percent of respondents said they would oppose it if they disagreed with the ruling. 

A separate survey, out Thursday, showed 76.9 percent of 508 respondents supported Park’s ouster, while only 20.3 percent wanted her reinstatement as the state head. 

Since late October, South Korea’s national psyche has remained torn over what to think of the president’s seemingly unexplainable reliance on her friend of four decades Choi Soon-sil. 

Supporters and opponents have held rival rallies on massive scales in central Seoul to pressure the court to rule either in favor of or against the president. 

“When the verdict comes out, there will be a clash. I fear violence, but you shouldn’t avoid a fight over something that is worth fighting for,” Kwak Bok-hee, a 43-year-old staunch supporter of President Park, told The Korea Herald. 

Kwak, who has joined street pro-Park rallies four times, said she had no faith in the media and the nation’s institutions, in particular the judiciary branch. 

“They are all biased against the president. The rule of law has completely been ruined in this country,” she lamented. 

An No-jang, a 80-year-old survivor of the 1950-53 Korean War, even told The Korea Herald that he would sacrifice his life, if needed, to protect the nation’s elected leader. 

“I have no problem with a change of administration. I think it is even desirable. But I worry about North Korean sympathizers who are behind all this,” he said. “I am willing to immolate myself at Gwanghwamun Square, if the court decides to oust President Park.” 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many Park opponents also spoke of “no alternative” to her immediate ouster. 

Yoo Jun-sang, a college student, said he believes the justices will decide unanimously to remove Park if they do their job properly. But if the impeachment is rejected, he vowed to take to the streets again. 

“The country is in an abnormal state. To return it to normalcy, conflicts and dissonance are inevitable,” Yoo said. 

Seventy-year old Kim Dong-ae had no kind word to offer to fellow senior citizens who attend pro-Park rallies.

“Those attending the pro-Park rallies are just out of their mind. They were the puppets who benefited under the military dictatorship in the past and they do not want to get rid of the deep-rooted evil,” she said. 

The seemingly unbridgeable split in public opinion over President Park and her corruption scandal reflects the nation’s growing divides along the lines of age, political ideology and perceptions toward North Korea, experts said. 

Yang Seung-ham, a political science professor at Yonsei University, said conflict over President Park has reached a very dangerous level. 

The left-right divide has always been there in Korea, but with the Park administration, extreme rightists started to make their voices louder, which pulled back the leftists, the professor said. On top of that, economic polarization, which has since the early 2000s been a major dividing force, has deepened with the economy spiraling into a slump. 

“Park’s corruption scandal triggered the tension to erupt,” the professor added. 

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