Presidential impeachment underscores simmering anger in South Korea, but will it change anything?

Long before a court ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye from office Friday over a corruption scandal, many residents carried a growing list of complaints about their society.

The nation, Asia’s fourth-largest economy, has experienced slower economic growth, higher youth unemployment, rising income inequality and endemic collusion between leaders in business and government — all while internal critics complain that its dysfunctional democratic system seems incapable of reform.

These issues, among others, helped swell the massive crowds of millions who flooded the nation’s streets in recent months — as a burgeoning presidential influence scandal last October mushroomed into a national crisis, and ultimately the president’s removal.

Tens of thousands occupied a square in central Seoul to celebrate Park’s removal, and officials say about 30 protesters and police officers have been hurt in violent clashes. Two men believed to be protesters died.

It’s not clear that Park’s ouster will bring change to the troubled nation.

A day after the country’s constitutional court unanimously found that Park had “violated the duty to safeguard the nation,” South Korea analysts aren’t yet convinced, in part because of systemic challenges that won’t be affected by one impeached leader.

“Park became the focal point for a number of grievances that have been going on for decades,” said David Kang, an international relations professor at USC who directs the university’s Korean Studies Institute. “I don’t think I’ve seen any indication that Korean society, politics or business is going to change.”

South Koreans’ frustration with societal ills was perhaps why many national opinion surveys indicated that a large majority favored the president’s removal from office, if not her arrest, amid allegations that she participated in a bribery scheme with the country’s most powerful conglomerate, Samsung Group.

In impeaching Park last December, the National Assembly cited a list of allegations, including abuse of authority and influence peddling. But they also cited more political concerns, like her handling of a ferry accident in 2014.

Park’s downfall began in October 24 when a television network obtained a tablet computer with proof that a longtime Park confidant with no official role in government had edited her official speeches.

The revelation quickly turned into a massive corruption scandal that led to further disclosures that the confidant, Choi Soon-sil, used her influence with Park to extort money for her businesses from some large companies, including Samsung.

Prosecutors later arrested Samsung’s de facto leader, Lee Jae-yong, on bribery charges, alleging that he organized payments to Choi in an effort to gain support from Park for a controversial merger between two of his company’s affiliates. Authorities have also accused Park of bribery in the scheme, and she remains subject to legal action now that she’s lost the prosecutorial immunity that comes with the presidency.

Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who has stepped in as head of state during Park’s suspension since December, will continue leading the nation.

One possible place for substantive change after Park’s removal, of course, could be the presidency itself. Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, were members of the ruling conservative party, now known as Liberty Korea.

As the attention now turns to a special presidential election in early May, it’s possible that a more liberal candidate could win. Some, like Kang, believe the conservatives are “deeply hurt” by the scandal and could face a voter backlash.

An ideological shift at the top could have real implications for South Korean society, including how it deals with the advancing nuclear threat in North Korea and how it communicates with the Chinese, who have retaliated economically in frustration over Park’s plan to deploy an American anti-missile system.

“[Liberals] stand a good chance of winning and, if they win, would have a mandate — maybe not a sweeping one — to implement changes,” said Peter Kim, an assistant professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

After serving in the assembly and successfully working as a conservative party organizer, she narrowly won the presidency in 2012. But she never developed the ability to shape South Korea’s policy like her famous father, Park Chung-hee.

Her tenure, even before the scandal, has been marked by controversy and hurt by what some observers say was a secretive and aloof governing style — a style perhaps learned by closely observing her father, who seized power in a coup and ruled as a strongman.

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