The Constitutional Court of South Korea has until June to rule for or against the impeachment decision made by the National Assembly last December. As a majority of citizens are clamoring for an early decision, the court is under pressure to deliver the verdict sooner than later. In fact, the ruling is likely to arrive as early as March 13, as the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Park Han-chul, implied when he left his office in January. Although President Park and the ruling faction are launching last-ditch efforts to delay the proceedings and salvage what is left of her presidency, the Constitutional Court is seemingly poised to uphold the impeachment vote of the National Assembly, as it held the 14th hearing for the impeachment trial on February 16, as scheduled. The Constitution mandates that a presidential election be held within 60 days after the Constitutional Court’s decision formally vacates the office, also stipulating that a newly elected president begin the term effective immediately after the election. This would mean that a new president would take office in late April or no later than early May. Whatever negativity is associated with the suspension of presidential duties since the impeachment will soon disappear with the inauguration of a new president.
A considerable loss incurred to South Korea’s diplomatic and security interests during the period of political turmoil. It seems that immediate neighbors, China and Japan, have tried to take advantage of this political vacuum. China’s objection to THAAD deployment appeared to have abated to a certain extent toward the summer of 2016. However, the predicament of Park and resultant downfall of the conservative ruling party and resurgence of the liberal political faction, which has been skeptical of THAAD deployment, gave it renewed hope that, with persistent objections and petty measures of retaliation, it could induce the incoming government of South Korea to reconsider the decision to deploy THAAD. It is unfortunate that the landmark agreement between South Korea and Japan on wartime “sex-slaves” in December 2015 is on the verge of collapse, and South Korea deserves a fair share of blame for not honoring the agreement. Nevertheless, Japanese government officials are once against denying that Korean women were “forced” into sexual servitude and claiming territorial rights to Dokdo in new textbook guidelines, knowing that the protracted leadership void has rendered Korean government virtually defenseless and ineffective in responding to their rhetorical charades. Politicians in both countries are exploiting historical issues between the two countries to advance their parochial political interests rather than trying to salvage a deal that furthers mutual interests. Despite the obvious downsides, it is a comfort that North Korea has not launched provocations to take advantage of South Korea’s political crisis. It fired a new form of intermediate-range ballistic missile on February 12, but many experts agree that this was intended to test the nerves of the newly inaugurated Trump administration, not the incapacitated government of its southern neighbor. The cordial meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Abe made many people in South Korea envious, but Korea’s inability to hold a summit with the new American president in this transitional period for the alliance and North Korean policy will not do critical damage. Secretary of Defense Mattis, chose South Korea as the first destination of his first overseas trip and vowed an unlimited commitment to defend the US ally. Similarly, Secretary of State Tillerson, over the phone with Korea’s minister of foreign affairs, reaffirmed that the United States would reinforce a unified front with South Korea in coping with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. The alliance partnership spans more than six decades and has a history of weathering politically difficult times. It appears that the basic framework of the ROK-US alliance will endure despite domestic political risks in both countries.
A grave challenge to South Korea’s diplomatic and security interests would arise if the incoming government veers into practicing populist policies in foreign and security affairs. The conservative ruling party, Saenuri, was hit hard by the scandal and impeachment of Park. The conservative political faction is now in serious disarray; some thirty national assemblymen defected and created a conservative splinter party, Bareun. In a desperate attempt to remain politically viable, the embattled Saenuri went so far as to rename itself as the Liberty Korea Party, but to no avail. Rock-bottom approval ratings for the conservative parties are as baffling as their strange new labels. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the leading candidate of the conservatives, abruptly dropped out of the race in early February, the transfer of power to the opposition progressive party has become all the more likely. As of February 15, the sum of the approval ratings for all the potential presidential hopefuls in the conservative camp falls considerably short of the approval rating for Moon Jae-in, the front-runner of the opposition Minjoo party. If Moon is elected, major adjustments to South Korea’s foreign and security policies, if not a complete reversal, are likely to follow. Moon has warned that the costs of deteriorating relations with China and Russia outweigh the benefits of THAAD deployment; therefore the decision to deploy should be postponed and reconsidered under the next government. He casts doubt on the efficacy of GSOMIA, the military intelligence-sharing deal between South Korea and Japan, and he has promised to renegotiate the sex-slave accord with the former colonizer. Moon’s position with regard to THAAD, GSOMIA, and the sex-slave deal is “politically correct,” as public support for these foreign policy decisions of the Park Geun-hye government has plummeted in line with falling approval ratings for Park. According to a survey from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, among the respondents who oppose THAAD deployment, when asked for the reasons for the opposition, 53.9 percent responded, “because they cannot trust the (Park) government’s decision,” whereas 22.9 percent responded that “because they worry about the worsening relations with China.”1 Key foreign policy decisions of the Park government have become unfortunate casualties of the waning public support for her.
The government that comes in after what is now dubbed the “cherry blossom election”—because it is expected to be held in the spring, when cherry blossoms are in bloom in Korea—may overhaul Park’s North Korea policies as well. After the North’s 4th nuclear test in January last year, the Park government suspended all inter-Korean economic projects including the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a painful decision because it was one of few remaining symbols of inter-Korean cooperation, but a necessary measure to lead the international community by example to mobilize support for establishing the toughest-ever sanction regime against the North. In dealing with the ever-increasing nuclear and missile capabilities of the North, it is imperative for the international community to stay united to maintain and, if necessary, strengthen existing sanctions. There is very little doubt that South Korea, as the major stakeholder country, should take the lead in this endeavor. But the leading candidate from the opposition party suggests that his new government would waste no time in reopening the Kaesong complex and even resume tours to Mount Geumgang, which were suspended in the aftermath of North Korea’s 2008 murder of a South Korean tourist there.
In an interview conducted in December last year, Moon said, should he become president, he would visit North Korea first rather than the United States and be tough on the Trump administration in upcoming negotiations on defense-cost sharing. At the time of the interview, it seemed that he was speaking to his core constituency, but more recently, to woo moderate voters who harbor suspicions about his foreign and security policies, he moderated his tone and affirmed that the Korea-US alliance was the centerpiece of Korea’s diplomacy and security. Given the limited nature of South Korea’s policy options in this geopolitically volatile region of the world, it is not likely that the new government’s foreign and security policies would deviate radically from those of the previous ones. The alliance will function as the linchpin of Korea’s foreign policies under the new government, but it is also quite possible that the new president would revisit some major foreign policy decisions of the Park government, even at the cost of undermining the sanctions regime against the North and, in doing so, could strain the relationship with the United States to some extent. With the downfall of Park and the ruling conservative party, transfer of power to the progressive opposition party seems to be an almost foregone conclusion, as seen in February 2017.
1. Asan Issue Brief, January 23, 2017.