On December 9, the South Korean National Assembly passed a motion of impeachment against Park Geun-hye. The ROK Constitutional Court has up to 180 days from that date to review the motion of impeachment and to evaluate the specific charges contained in the motion. While the court reviews the evidence in support of the impeachment motion, Park is sidelined from her official responsibilities and has been replaced by her former prime minister, Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
If the court upholds the motion, the ROK constitution requires that elections for a new five-year presidential term be held within 60 days of the court’s decision. Thus, South Korea could hold presidential elections anytime between March and August of 2017, depending on how long it takes for the court to render its judgement on the merits of Park’s impeachment. If the court overturns the impeachment, Park will serve out the remainder of her term, but her presidency will be tarnished, and her capacity to perform basic functions will remain limited until the next presidential election in December of 2017 and the inauguration of a new president on February 25, 2018. In either case, South Korea faces a political vacuum that could last from six months to a year during which there will be no one with the authority to make and implement sensitive decisions.
As acting president, Hwang Kyo-ahn oversees the administrative functions of government, but would face tremendous political resistance and criticism from the National Assembly if he were to overreach and make decisions on politically controversial issues. In fact, the National Assembly has already called upon Hwang to undertake regular consultations with it on state affairs, signaling to Hwang the limitations of his power.
Clearly, the political vacuum created by the impeachment and the near-term absence of political leadership or a single political authority capable of driving a political agenda or providing strategic direction to South Korea is costly. While South Korea’s bureaucracy is capable of managing routine affairs, only an elected president is empowered in the Korean system to exercise the full authority and powers that come with South Korea’s powerful presidential office. The best the South Korean public can hope for under current circumstances is that the government muddle through and avoid big mistakes that might further exacerbate the situation. The rest of the world continues to move forward while South Korean politics is at a standstill. In today’s world, even a pause in direction of state affairs could mean that South Korea is falling behind other countries. Nevertheless, an even bigger challenge would result if South Korea were once again hit with a substantial crisis that would require political leadership to overcome or resolve. The following are the potential costs South Korea might incur as a result of its political vacuum.
1) Inability to Influence the Trump Administration-in-Formation
The biggest near-term cost South Korea faces resulting from a protracted vacuum in political leadership is the inability to establish a close political relationship with incoming president Donald J. Trump. South Korea’s incapacity to have a national leader meet with him will limit the ability of both countries to send early political signals of affirmation regarding the importance of the relationship. This is a bigger problem than under normal circumstances because Trump has made comments during the campaign that suggest he would like to renegotiate some aspects of the alliance, including the determination of new arrangements for dividing the costs necessary for the United States to provide security to the Republic of Korea.
A second way in which the absence of a South Korean president imposes costs during a period of political transition in the United States is that it is, arguably, important for a new US president to meet stakeholders on particular issues as he learns the ropes of international security. A personal relationship between him and a South Korean president would underscore that the alliance is a partnership and will reduce the possibility that Trump might consider unilateral actions in response to a North Korean provocation.
Third, policies of the Trump administration will go a long way toward shaping the economic and security context in which South Korean presidents make decisions and in which South Korea pursues its own national interests. The relative importance of the US-ROK alliance and the North Korean nuclear problem will be determined in the context of overall American priorities. In addition, the tone and substance of US policy toward China will have a big influence on South Korea’s strategic environment. However, South Korean bureaucrats are less able to take the initiative to influence and make known their needs to the incoming Trump team in the absence of a clear political direction or in a context in which they are unsure of the political priorities of South Korea’s next president.
2) Vulnerability to Political Interference from Near Neighbors
Another cost that South Korea faces because of its own political vacuum is that uncertainty regarding South Korea’s political direction will influence the political strategies and attention of South Korea’s immediate neighbors, Japan and China. For instance, Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has already led to the postponement of the Japan-South Korea-China trilateral summit meeting that the government of Japan had intended to host in December.
Second, political issues that normally would be the prerogative of the president as chief executive might become immobilized as a result of domestic political polarization. For instance, political debates over the future of the Japan-South Korea relationship related to the implementation of the December 2015 “comfort woman” agreement could be reopened because of South Korea’s political crisis. The Democratic Party is challenging the agreement and has stated its opposition to an information-sharing agreement between the two countries that has been signed and has entered into force following the outbreak of the political scandal. As a result, Japanese observers have expressed their concern that the next South Korean government may not honor Park’s pledge for a “final and irreversible” settlement of the “comfort woman” issue and that South Korea-Japan security cooperation may remain subject to politicization.
Likewise, South Korean politics could be subject to external manipulation by neighboring parties. For instance, China senses an opportunity to take a more aggressive stance in opposition to the “alliance decision” to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system to South Korea now that South Korea’s leading opposition candidate for president, Moon Jae-in, has publicly stated that such a decision could be reversed without incurring much damage to the US-ROK alliance. Such statements are likely to invite even more heavy-handed expressions of opposition by China to the deployment than South Korea would have experienced in the absence of a protracted leadership vacuum. As a result, South Korea has no credible political channels by which to authoritatively express concerns about Chinese discrimination against Korean K-pop (Korean pop music) products, reductions in Chinese tourism numbers to Seoul, or nationwide retaliatory investigations against Lotte for providing land for use by the THAAD system. Meanwhile, South Korea’s bureaucrats may take a more cautious stance toward sensitive issues regarding China because of uncertainty about the strategic direction of South Korea’s next administration.
3) Deepening of South Korea’s Economic Malaise
The absence of political direction in South Korea is particularly worrisome because it comes at a time of uncertainty involving prospects for South Korea’s economic growth. Urgent steps are needed to address worsening youth unemployment, structural obstacles to economic growth, maldistribution of social services necessary to sustain the public welfare, and a far from level playing field conducive to economic growth within South Korea. Yet, these issues have been bottled up and pushed to the background of National Assembly debates as it is consumed with issues related to the Park scandal and the prospect of an early presidential election.
Hwang Kyo-ahn will be empowered to keep government running and to ensure the performance of basic governmental functions, but the near-term prospects for settlement of political issues related to regulatory reform, support for innovation policies, and management of business-government relations and policies related to South Korea’s conglomerates are likely to be stalled for the time being. If an economic crisis were to manifest itself concretely, the acting president would have to hope that the crisis generates political consensus among the political parties in the National Assembly sufficient to forge compromise policies to address it, but such an agreement would likely only serve as a bridging agreement rather than a comprehensive solution in the event of a major crisis.
Only a sitting president would have the capability to counter damage to the international reputation of the Korean “brand” resulting from the Hanjin bankruptcy and product failure of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. Instead, South Korea’s political crisis is reinforcing the perception that Korean quality control and management capabilities are somehow broken, indirectly exacerbating and prolonging perceptions of Korean economic mismanagement.
4) Inadequate Response to North Korean Provocations/Crisis
The nightmare scenario for South Korea in the context of a protracted political leadership vacuum would be a direct challenge or provocation from North Korea involving casualties or other tangible losses. For instance, a North Korean provocation around the demilitarized zone (DMZ) or a hypothetical strike on South Korean territory would generate a serious challenge for South Korea’s institutional bureaucracy and would raise major political debates about the strength and scope of a South Korean response. The political vacuum might also generate risks for the United States in the event that it becomes necessary to determine or lead a response to a North Korean provocation, generating unnecessary risk of political backlash or criticism of the United States in its management of a response.
At the same time, South Korean perceptions that North Korea is intentionally trying to gain advantage from the political vacuum would likely unite South Korea’s public behind a strong response, especially if an institutional consensus were to develop among the bureaucracy and elites that the incursion was calculated to exploit political weakness. A stronger than expected South Korean response would once again potentially involve complicated consultations with the United States that could generate political backlash in Seoul if US involvement in such a response were perceived as an unnecessary intervention in South Korea’s political affairs even at the same time that Seoul demanded a strong response.
A North Korean provocation would potentially have unpredictable and unprecedented impact on South Korea’s democratic process and the outcome of its next presidential election. South Korean democracy is sufficiently consolidated that the prospect of a military coup in response to a North Korean provocation remains low, but it is easy to imagine that South Korea’s democratic processes and political leadership would come under great strain in a crisis scenario involving a serious military threat.
South Korea’s political vacuum is a product of the strength of the country’s democratic political institutions, as it demonstrates the accountability of the leader to the will of the people and rule of law. However, the ensuring vacuum comes with tangible costs that could be exacerbated in the event that the acting leader faces a crisis. Most importantly, the experience and weaknesses of South Korea’s current political transition should provide a useful object lesson and basis for South Korea to pursue constitutional revisions so as to further strengthen the resilience of Korea’s democratic institutions.
This is a perilous time for a vacuum in leadership. It comes amid extraordinary flux and uncertainty about US policy toward East Asia and Sino-US relations. Korean officials and academic experts are scrambling to get a fix on Trump’s intentions. In the coming several months, as Korean politics remains paralyzed, Trump’s administration will be deciding on its priorities and agenda with far-reaching consequences for the Korean Peninsula. Staying on the sidelines during this critical transition increases the possibility of one or another negative scenario, concerning which South Korean representatives will have reduced input.