Kathleen Stephens was the US Ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. Prior to this, she had held many posts as a diplomat for the US Foreign Service, serving in various capacities in Asia, Europe, and Washington D.C. for a total of 35 years. In 2009, she received the Presidential Meritorious Service Award for her diplomatic work. As the William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University, she specialized in the development of South Korea’s political landscape and its relations with the United States.

In the wake of the scandal surrounding South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Ambassador Stephens spoke with the HIR in late December of 2016 about the context of the scandal and its potential repercussions.

President Park’s impeachment was partially a result of massive peaceful demonstrations by South Korean citizens. Do you think the national assembly's vote to impeach Park indicates that South Koreans have successfully gained greater influence over their government?

I’d say yes. I think South Korean citizens certainly feel that going out on the streets in the very determined and peaceful manner that they did had an impact on what happened. What the more long-term impacts are still remains to be seen, but I think they feel that way, and I think that’s objectively the case.

Do you think they will retain this influence even after Park has been permanently ousted?

Well, I would say this: Korea is a democracy, and I watched Korea’s development into a democracy over many years. I was there in the 1980s, when there were people in the streets, demanding, in that case, a direct election of the president by the people, rather than one achieved through more indirect means. This led to 1987 being a watershed year in Korean democracy. So this is, in a way, a part of the great Korean tradition, and I think people feel that what happened in the last couple of months has reaffirmed that tradition. I was in Korea in November for about ten days, so I’m basing my comments on that as well as what I read, the Koreans I know, and the perspective I have from following Korea for many decades. I would say that there’s a broad feeling that the expression of people’s views over the last couple of months and the impeachment of the president have encouraged many Koreans to think that they will be able to play a larger role in their democracy and have their voices heard.

But that said, there are many underlying forces of discontent that I think continue to need to be addressed in the opinion of many Koreans. Obviously, this is a country with a range of views, as is our own, but I think there’s a sense that this protest occurred in the context of broader discontent with other issues, not just because of the immediate question of the president, her relationship with Ms. Choi Soon-sil, and the exact charges that have been made against them.

Currently, Prime Minister Hwang has become the acting president of South Korea. Will the nation's lack of an elected president impede the efficacy of its government?

Well, first of all, it’s obviously not ideal to have a president—in this case, President Park Geun-hye—who still holds the office but is now constitutionally unable to carry out her function. However, the system, as defined by the Korean Constitution, is that when a president is impeached, the president steps back while they wait to see the final decision of the Constitutional Court—which could take up to six months, but might be shorter. Then, the otherwise not very powerful and certainly not political prime minister, who is usually a career civil servant or a very senior official, actually takes on power.

This system, while not ideal, seems to be working, and South Korea does have considerable strengths, such as its very professional—certainly not perfect, but very highly qualified—core of civil servants and bureaucrats. And even as I look at the Korean press over the last few days, I see evidence that work continues, and the institutions of Korean democracy and Korean bureaucracy are indeed resilient and mature enough to manage through this period. But certainly, especially at a time when the United States is getting a new president—the United States, of course, being South Korea’s ally and very close partner—it’s not ideal, and I think people do feel a bit uncomfortable and worried about that. But I think there’s also some confidence that this will be managed, and we’ll see how long the impeachment process goes on and when the election is, but certainly, this is a period of some uncertainty. This also introduces the question of South Korea’s relationships with other countries, and also the question of facing the continued threat of North Korea. But again, I think South Korea is a country that has a highly professional security and military institutional structure, so I’m relatively confident that they’ll manage through this.

You mentioned the new president of the United States, as well as the fact that it could take months for the Constitutional Court to either accept or reject Park’s impeachment. This means that South Korea will not have a new elected president when Donald Trump assumes office. Do you think this will affect US-Korea relations?

No, I don’t think it will. I think both of our democracies have mechanisms in place, through our consultation at many levels, to continue to be able to work together and, if need be, to manage issues or crises that might come up. I know that the president-elect did have a telephone conversation with President Park Geun-hye before she was impeached. That telephone conversation was reassuring to South Koreans: it was reported by the South Korean presidential press spokesperson that Trump had reassured President Park that he stood behind the alliance. There was no other readout of the conversation, but this one was widely reported and certainly wasn’t disavowed by the Trump transition team. This is quite reassuring in the context of some worries, frankly, on the South Korean side about some things that Donald Trump had said during the campaign that suggested that he had some skepticism about the value of some of our traditional alliances, such as the one with South Korea.

That said, I don’t want to underplay the fact that I think there’s still anxiety there that’s going to have to be addressed. Currently, I think South Korea is on a calendar: sometime within the next five and a half months, the Constitutional Court will make a decision as to whether or not President Park Geun-hye must leave office immediately. If the Constitutional Court makes that decision, once it is made, there will be an election for a new president within sixty days. If, on the other hand, the Constitutional Court says that the evidence presented was not sufficient to support the impeachment, then she would return to office and would serve out her term, which ends in December 2017. So, one way or the other, there’s going to be a presidential election in South Korea in 2017. I don’t want to do too much predicting, but if the Constitutional Court does not support the impeachment, I think you might see some strong reaction from people who were demanding her resignation.

Again, I think it’s going to be a complicated year in South Korea, and one we do need to follow and watch very closely. I think, as Americans, in terms of the United States and the new Trump administration, we also need to be very respectful of Korea’s democratic processes, just as we expect other countries to be respectful of ours, even at times when they seem a little bit odd or unpredictable from the outside. We must continue to affirm our bipartisan support—and indeed there is very strong bipartisan support in the Congress and in the country—for this long-standing alliance, so we’ll need to focus on that in the coming months. It really is hard to say exactly how things are going to play out over the next year, except that, firstly, we know that while there isn’t a full president in charge right now in South Korea, there is indeed a functioning government; we shouldn’t have any doubt about that. Secondly, South Korea’s election year is already well underway—and we know something about what that’s like—and, because it is a democracy, no one has any idea who will be president in Korea a year from now.

What do you think are the institutional problems in South Korea’s political system that allowed for the extreme levels of corruption in Park’s administration?

Well, corruption in South Korea has been one of the weaknesses of what has otherwise been a most admirable economic and political transformation and rise, really one of the most extraordinary in modern times. I suppose I would take your question in a slightly different context, as I don’t know if all Koreans would agree that the alleged corruption that has been discussed so far in Park Geung-hye’s presidency is of a totally different order than earlier corruption, but I think that Koreans are more sensitive to it or less tolerant of it. This has been a trend that has been going on for some time, and it’s a very healthy trend. As Korean society has become more democratic, as the press has become more active, as, in some ways, there has been more transparency, people have become more aware of corruption and, rightly so, less tolerant of it.

At the same time, I think we’ve seen some of the same trends we’ve seen in other countries, but in a special Korean way: for example, the overweening influence of extremely large corporations, which are called chaebol in Korea. This has been a feature of its development from the beginning—meaning from President Park’s father’s time—when these chaebol really became the engines of Korea’s economic transformation. But I think that there is much more popular concern about their over-influence in the economy and in politics, as well as the relationship between them and the politicians. And that, of course, is some of what we’ve seen over the last couple of months with this somewhat unprecedented sight of the leaders of these major companies—Samsung, Hyundai, and all the other chaebol—coming as a group to be grilled by the National Assembly. That’s a new occurrence. So I think this is a story still to be played out.

People march in favor of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, opposing her impeachment.

Other factors, again, we’ve seen in our own country. One that has been met with popular indignation and anger is growing inequality. Certainly, with Korea’s economic development, everyone has gotten richer; but now we have a case where the gap between the very top of society and the rest has grown. As well, this is a country that has always much valued education and the idea of merit as demonstrated by educational achievement. So, one of the things that really touched a nerve—possibly even more than the corruption—but maybe has not been noted as much in the West, is one of the original grievances that became public: the report that President Park’s confidante’s daughter had been admitted to an elite university in South Korea without the proper academic qualifications, but rather on the basis of her connections. She also had not performed well academically and essentially had been given a pass because of her connections.

Now, this is not unheard of in other countries, including our own I believe, but it outraged Koreans, and it was one of the things that made the case of President Park different from those of some of her predecessors. I don’t want to say it was the final straw, but it was one grievance on top of a number of others in a country where young people increasingly feel that no matter what they accomplish in terms of their education and their qualifications, without the right connections, they’ll never be able to pull themselves up into a position of greater opportunity. So, I see elements of some of the anger and grievance that has fueled political protests in this country and elsewhere, but in a particularly Korean context.

You said that the people of Korea are not inclined to tolerate this level of corruption in their government, so do you think the scandal has changed the way that South Koreans view their government?

I think that Koreans’ view of their democracy is evolving. I use the word “democracy” rather than “government” because I think a real feature of South Korea is that its government—by which I mean the ministries, the civil service, and so on—is very high-functioning. Now, how it relates to the chaebol and the big business interest in the country is certainly something that is undergoing a real re-evaluation in Korea—again, not because this is something new and different, but rather because I think many Koreans feel like now is the time to move past that and to address it for some of the reasons I mentioned earlier. The belief that is held by people across a range of political positions is that Korea needs to look at making its democracy better. Perhaps that means some constitutional revision, such as moving away from a one-term five-year presidency, where the president holds tremendous power at first, but reaches lame-duck status by about year two or three. Other changes could include redefining the role of money in politics and the role of the chaebol. So I think it’s about looking at their democracy.

But Korean democracy, as I mentioned earlier, has always had a particular place for the people in the streets and for the idea of the people’s trust. This touches on the question of where legitimacy comes from for a leader. In China, they talk about the Mandate of Heaven; in Korea, it really is the people’s trust—in fact, there is a word in Korean that doesn’t translate into English but essentially means the “people’s trust.” And yes, they express that through the ballot box. Yes, to some extent, they rely upon their institutions, such as the courts. But to a far greater extent than we here in the United States do, they also embrace the legitimacy of people directly, and in this case, over the last couple of months, very peacefully, going into the streets and saying, “We’ve made up our minds, and now the government, the courts, and the institutions should follow.” Now, we’ll see if that indeed happens, and that’s why the way the Constitutional Court approaches this will be very interesting to watch, not just in terms of the immediate result, but in terms of Korea’s future democratic development.

But I think this is a moment in which Koreans play an active role in reforming and reshaping a democracy of which they are very proud, but which they also recognize has not been without its problems, not only in the current presidency that has so disappointed them, but in issues that have accrued over time and have not been dealt with. Korea has had a number of presidents since 1987, when the direct election of the president was instituted, and most of the presidents get into some kind of trouble at the end of their terms, and oftentimes, it has had to do with corruption, usually involving their relatives. President Park made a point of saying, “I don’t have relatives around to be corrupt, so I’m going to be uncorrupted,” and then this whole scandal began, involving this close friend and confidante of hers. So each time, there has been this kind of Achilles heel of a Korean president that has led to some sort of disgrace toward the end of their term or after they’ve left. I think Koreans do see beyond their dissatisfaction with what President Park is alleged to have done and feel that the system itself needs some rejuvenation and reform.

Protestors fill the streets with signs and candles, calling for the end of Park's presidency.