The president of South Korea was removed from office today by the country's Constitutional Court. She was impeached by a supermajority of the legislature, including many members of her own political party, following revelations that a powerful personal aide was soliciting contributions from large conglomerates (including global brands Samsung and Hyundai) to the aide's foundations, and had been allowed improper influence inside the government. While today's news sparked protests that reportedly have led to the deaths of at least two people, polls indicate that a large majority of the country supported the president's impeachment and removal. South Korea appears to have a more rational impeachment and removal process than the U.S. does. A supermajority of legislators was necessary for the impeachment, presumably to avoid the appearance of partisanship in the vote. The impeachment put the president's fate in the hands of the Constitutional Court, which had 180 days from the time of the vote to decide whether or not to remove her. Their vote is not a conviction but a confirmation of the validity of the impeachment. By comparison, impeachment in the U.S. means a trial by the Senate, where the requirement of a supermajority to convict means that a partisan majority of sufficient size can block the president's removal regardless of the evidence introduced during the trial. The South Korean Constitutional Court consists of nine judges. While all nine are appointed by the president, as in the U.S., the Korean president actually has complete discretion in the appointment of three of those justices. The other six are selected from pools of names determined by the court's own chief justice and the legislature. While this doesn't guarantee partisan or ideological balance, it theoretically makes a partisan or ideologically biased court less likely than the appointment process in the U.S. During the 180 day countdown the president was under suspension and stripped of effective power, the prime minister acting in her stead. Today's removal decision forces a snap presidential election, the prime minister remaining as acting president until the vote.
While extreme partisans may cry frame-up, this episode indicates that it is possible to hold the highest elected officials accountable in a republican form of government. It probably helped that South Korea is not really a bipolarchy. Five parties have seats in the legislature, though two (including the president's) clearly predominate. It may also be that partisanship doesn't work the same way in South Korea than it does in the U.S., where an apparently ironclad bipolarchy extending beyond the political sphere encourages a kind of partisan immunity on the presumption that any attempt to remove an elected official from office is a hypocritical conspiracy by the opposing party. Whatever the underlying reasons, it's good to have South Korea around as an alternate example of functioning liberal democracy when authoritarians, usually pointing at the United States, claim that such a system of government is hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly incompetent, or simply hopeless.