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South Korea- Constitutional Confrontation?

Hwang Kyo-ahn Has it Both Ways

The former prime minister is suspected of considering martial law plans in 2017, he seeks to take political credit from those who would have welcomed it, while denying he had any role.

(Source- JTBC News, 10.28 ) Hwang Kyo-ahn, former prime minister, and leader of the Liberty Korea Party, (right); and Na Kyung-won, National Assembly floor leader of Liberty Korea Party, (center) attend 40th Memorial Service for assassinated dictator Park Chung-hee (10.26). Hwang is quoted as saying, "we must learn the spirit of Park Chung-hee."

There are recent reports on the disclosure of new evidence, National Security Council documents, detailing preparations for the implementation of martial law during the waning days of the Park Geun-hye impeachment proceedings. During this time in February and early March 2017, it appears from the documentation, that the commander of the Defense Security Command, prepared plans to implement martial law, to avoid the fall of the conservative Park Geun-Hye administration. The official National Security Council documents are circumstantial evidence that the then acting president and prime minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn, had knowledge of the plans, and perhaps as acting chair of the NSC, played a role in their formulation. Hwang has made flat denials of any knowledge of such preparations for the implementation of martial law to save the conservative administration. At the time, democratic opposition protesters were carrying out massive demonstrations in Gwanghwamun and other locations in South Korea during the pendency of the Park Geun-hye impeachment process. Other observers have attempted to belittle the significance of the martial law plans, suggesting that at worst, they were only contingency plans to deal with public disorder rather than a coup d'etat to overthrow the constitutional order. It is not clear what happened during the very last days preceding the conviction of Park Geun-hye by the Constitutional Court. The critical witness to the formulation of the martial law plans, and their potential execution was the commander of the Defense Security Command, Cho Hyun-cheon ( 조현천 기무사령관 ). He was the key person involved in their development. It is important to note in this regard, that the same role was played by former president Chun Du-won as the Defense Security Command commander after the assassination of Park Chung-hee (Park Geun-hye's father) forty years earlier after the fall of the Yushin Constitution. The coup planning DSC commander Cho Hyun-cheon, in question now, fled South Korea, and his whereabouts are allegedly unknown. Interpol has refused to issue a warrant calling for his arrest citing a policy not to use legal process in political cases. All of this is according to an interview of Im Tae-hun of the Military Rights Center ( 임태훈 군인권센터 ) who represents the whistle blower who leaked classified NSC documents. *

* https://news.v.daum.net/v/20191021211005908, (transcript of youtube podcast) MBC radio interview 10.21

(Source- OhMyNews 10.30) Im Tae-hun press briefing at the Military Rights Center.

Significant detail in the 2017 martial law plans in question called for various army units to deploy to the Gwanghwamun plaza site of the so-called "candlelight" demonstrations, multiple major university campus locations, strategic bridges in Seoul, and to Yoido, the location of the National Assembly. All these tactical moves with a view toward dispersing demonstrators, arresting activists and political opposition leaders, blocking movements of citizens, and preventing the normal governmental functions of the National Assembly.

In an ironic turnabout, the Liberty Korea Party currently in its role of political opposition, has organized demonstrations at Gwanghwamun against the current Moon Jae-in, democratic administration. Although LKP floor leader Na, gave herself an award for toppling the Justice Minister Cho Guk from his newly appointed position, it is likely that the Chief Prosecutor's office is the more responsible party. After attending an overnight Gwangwhamun demonstration this weekend, LKP leaders Hwang and Na, attended the 40th memorial ceremony for former president Park Chung-hye. The former president has been credited with modernizing the Korean economy while ruling South Korea with an iron fist in a military like social order. The former dictator was also credited with "normalizing" relations with Japan, which the blog has described elsewhere. This modernization effort was characterized by self serving corruption by the former Japanese trained military officer and his pro-Japanese political and business cronies. The LKP represents the heirs of this Park political tradition. These interests have consistently blocked efforts to come to terms with the Japanese colonial legacy in Korea for decades.

Cho Guk recently had been appointed Justice Minister to reform the national prosecutor's office. It appears that there was an element of bias in prosecution resistance to the widely supported initiative to check the unbridled power of the "republic of lawyers." The apparent corruption of Cho Guk's family members gave them a lever to force him out of office. The prosecutor's office was accused of multiple leaks by some journalists which added to the political unrest in the streets. On the other hand, Im Tae-hun, who represents the martial law plans whistle blower, asserts that the Chief Prosecutors Office has deliberately sat on documentation that reflects suspicion on Hwang Kyo-Ahn complicity. The far right opposes fast track reform while an agreement has been reached by four political parties to fast track the legislation so as to get a floor vote during this session of the National Assembly.

(Source- JTBC News, 10.28 ) Hwang Kyo-ahn, leader of the Liberty Korea Party, and Na Kyung-won, National Assembly floor leader of Liberty Korea Party, are front and center at the 40th Memorial Ceremony for the former President Park Chung-hee, 10.26. The sign above the portal says refers to President Park Chung-hee's philosophy as a father of the country, a proper country has a strong military.

Ironically, Hwang's presence at the memorial service for the former dictator was marked notably by some boos and jeers calling him "traitor." It is notable that the impeachment of Park Geun-hye took place while Hwang was acting president. She was tried under impeachment proceedings. Apparently some in the conservative audience thought he should have done something about it while he had the opportunity. The peaceful transition of power by impeachment and free elections, is viewed as a betrayal of the ultra far right elements attending not only the Park 40th Memorial but also the current Gwanghwamun demonstrations sponsored by the LKP: protestant evangelicals that elected Park Geun-hye; and the far right pro-dictator elements. Hwang has been reported to have said things such as we need to remember "Park's leadership concerning the economy during a difficult economic period of which there are many examples." Also "we must learn the spirit of Park Chung-hee." As to the anti-Moon Jae-in demonstrations calling for his arrest and ouster, Hwang said the demonstrations reflect the "anger of the people." Political commentators noted that it is evident that the LKP leadership intends these demonstrations continue. There were other cynical observations about the role of churches and the party apparently furnishing free food as inducements to gather. One expert said, Cho Guk's fall was no cause to relax, "they caught the rabbit in the house, now it's time to catch the rabbit in the mountain." Another observation was that South Korea may only be at the half way point in this constitutional confrontation.

Meanwhile in another late news item, it was reported that leader Na, appeared at press briefing with the National Assembly leader, Moon Hee-sang, and two other party leaders, to announce that the Assembly committee handling fast track legislation has referred a prosecutorial reform bill to the floor for a vote. During the news item it was noted that the representatives from the center right Barun Mirae Party, and the Justice Party were demonstrating on the floor for a vote to fast track the Legislative reform bill first. As the blog has noted previously, it is this extension of proportional (nation wide) seating that is expected to decrease the number of district seats held by the Liberty Korea Party. Until this matter is resolved, the street politics and political theater in Seoul is likely to continue unabated. Na said something like this to the National Assembly leader, "I'd rather stop this unconstitutional fast track process than hold hands" (for a photo shoot). The leader responded, "I'd rather hold a wrist, than be grabbed by the ankle." The latter a reference to the continual obstruction of legislation by the LKP opposition. LKP physical obstruction of committee efforts led by Na last April is currently subject to an investigation by prosecutors.

Political Turmoil in South Korea

(Source- JTBC News 10.18) Liberty Korea Party representatives may be charged in a group, as they have refused to respond to summons (from the investigating prosecutors for the April 25 "fast track" incident in the National Assembly.)

The right wing Liberty Korea Party didn't have much time to relish the resignation of the Cho Kuk, the short term Minister of Justice who barely lasted thirty five days after being appointed to reform the National Prosecutor's office in South Korea. This morning, prosecution office investigators arrived at the National Assembly Broadcast archives office to collect all video recordings related to last April's Liberty Korea Party sit in blockade of the National Assembly offices to preclude consideration of "fast track" legislative proposals (discussed here in an earlier blog entry Oct 12). The fast track proposals included electoral reform as well as prosecution reform. The presentation of a search warrant at the video archives indicates that the Chief Prosecutor's office has decided to proceed with a formal investigation of the Liberty Korea Party's unlawful acts in the National Assembly building despite their representatives collective refusal to respond to legal process. The prosecution could rely on filing charges against members identified in the video recordings without obtaining individual responses to summons or statements from the conservative representatives. As many as sixty representatives or staff members were involved in the disorder, which ultimately failed to prevent a fast track approval vote the legislative committee.

(Source- JTBC News 10.18) Liberty Korea Party opposition leader Na Kyung Won in the National Assembly, "I have already said I know that in order for government to finish its (fast track) investigation we will face investigation. Nevertheless, during the regular session of the National Assembly to take colleagues away (from our duties) really..."

Given the suspicions surrounding Cho Kuk's wife and other family members, it may have been a serious mistake for Moon Jae In to appoint him Justice Minister. Minister Cho's sudden resignation on October 14 was the right move in view of increasing domestic dissatisfaction and unrest evidenced by street demonstrations. South Korea's economic difficulties prompted by the ongoing trade disputes in Asia, the rift with Japan, and the unraveling of relations with North Korea have all taken a toll on the approval rating of the democratic administration. One domestic poll reported by JTBC on the 17th reported that Moon's approval rating had improved by more than three percent after the sudden Cho resignation. Today JTBC reported a Gallup poll saying that Moon's popularity had continued to fall and was below forty percent for the first time since he took office.

(Source- JTBC News 10.18) National Assembly Broadcast caught the fast track confrontation live on camera while it happened. LKP party members lead by Representative Na obstructing the National Assembly. Complete unedited archive videos are sought in the prosecution's search warrant.

The Liberty Korea Party can take little comfort from the polls. It is they now who are being chided publicly for being on the wrong side of the legal process. In addition to the negative publicity of their embarrassing impolitic display of weakness last April, they are now presented with the prospect of dealing with an apparently implacable and capable chief prosecutor. In addition to this, they are faced with potentially losing seats in the National Assembly based on the electoral reform to which four other political parties have agreed to fast track. This reform may come up for a vote in the Assembly in time to affect the April 2020 elections barring any unforeseen developments. However, unforeseen developments seem to have been the order of the day since the Park impeachment, and anything could happen. Who could have predicted massive demonstrations in Gwanghwamun, as seen on October 3, and October 9 in favor of the right wing party? The democratic party assembly leader commented on the unsavory quality of dictator reverence that seemed to affect some of the crowd. Leader Na responded that democrats had no room to criticize anyone for dictatorial traits. Na also commented that the warrant for National Assembly archive videos was a "hollywood like stunt."

(Source- JTBC News 10.18) Lee In Yeong, Democratic Party floor leader in the National Assembly. Hiding from the chief prosecutor..."instead of rationalizing self advocacy I wish those of you facing legal process from the prosecutors office respond now. No one, no matter who they are, is above the law."

Under these circumstances, polls mean little when the LKP doesn't have a majority in the legislature and is out of stonewalling and diversion tactics. So what will the wily LKP leaders come up with for their next move? More mass street demonstrations? Attempts by demonstrators to enter the Blue House? Violent black bloc type tactics seen in Hong Kong presaged in the October 3 Gwanghwamun demonstration? Anything could happen. The trial process against Cho Kuk's spouse began today, but the prosecution hasn't yet complied with discovery requests from the defense based on claims disclosure would adversely affect investigations related to former Minister Cho's family. The judge did not accept the explanation and further hearing is scheduled.


The Black Hole of South Korean Domestic Politics

(Source- JTBC News, 10.3) The Taegukki People’s Revolution Movement, a reactionary far right organization, appeared to be present at the demonstration in force, carrying US flags as well as Korean flags. Their banner (above) features the former ruthless dictators Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee.

There is a contrary view that the demonstration in Gwangwhamun was more extensive than I have previously described.* The promoters of the demonstration, specifically, the Liberty Korea Party, have claimed that there were 3 million demonstrators. The author watched news reports of every candlelight demonstration at Gwanghwamun that brought down the previous Park government. Rather than increase the estimate of the participants at the anti-Cho Guk, anti- democracy demonstration, it appears that an estimate in the hundreds of thousands would also be appropriate for the democratic pro-Cho Guk demonstration last Saturday.

While the turnout on Saturday in support of the judicial reforms and the Moon administration was substantially larger than the Liberty Party rally at Gwangwhamun, as a practical matter it doesn't matter, the political impact is equivalent. The Liberty Party turnout was massive. In light of other pressing matters, the pending negotiations with North Korea; the diplomatic and economic rift with Japan; the impact of repeated typhoons damaging the southern regions of South Korea; and the investigations of Justice Minister Cho Guk's family for suspected corruption, and the leaders of the Liberty Party Korea for illegally obstructing the constitutional functions of the legislative assembly; the domestic political polarization in South Korea represents a political crisis. Sohn Suk-hee, chief of the JTBC News Division correctly characterized the current domestic political confrontation in South Korea as a "black hole."

*For a description of the Liberty Party demonstration:

Impressions of the anti- Cho Guk demonstration


For a description of the earlier pro- Cho Guk demonstation:

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