South Korea is in political turmoil after the impeachment and arrest of former President Park Geun-hye. Whoever is elected in the May 9 presidential vote will face a tough international environment and will have to work hard to regain the global community’s trust.
Progressive Leader Likely in South Korea
In the early hours of March 31, 2017, the Seoul Central District Court issued an arrest warrant for former South Korean President Park Geun-hye on suspicion of corruption, after questioning that lasted into the night of March 30. Park was then transported to prison. She thus became the third South Korean leader to be jailed since the republic was founded in 1948.
The progress of the investigation into the former president is a constant factor in the race to elect her successor. Amid unceasing coverage of the scandal surrounding Park after her impeachment was upheld on March 10, the conservative forces that she led have been unable to regroup. The Saenuri Party, which governed under Park, renamed itself the Liberty Korea Party in February. It is riven by division between those who back the former president and those seeking to distance themselves from Park, and has struggled to reach a decision on how to handle the crisis. While the party’s support level briefly rallied, it now hovers around 10%.
The problem LKP faces is that while the majority of South Koreans were in favor of impeachment and want to see firm handling of the scandal, a fervent core of Park supporters also remains. Shifting to a stance critical of Park risks alienating the party’s base, but continuing to defend her means ignoring the will of most voters. This is a serious dilemma. Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Bareun Party, which splintered from Saenuri in December over the Park scandal, have been labelled as traitors by her supporters and its own support level has sunk to less than 5%. South Korean conservatives are struggling in the post-Park era.
The key point is that Park’s impeachment and subsequent imprisonment have not simply brought down the government. They have violently uprooted the base that the nation’s conservative forces relied on for so long.
As a result, the South Korean political scene faces massive upheaval. Since Kim Dae-jung was elected in 1998, there has been lively competition between conservative and progressive forces. Moon Jae-in is the current favorite candidate in opinion polls for the presidential election scheduled for May 9. He lost to Park in the 2012 election, running for the Democratic United Party, and will represent the Democratic Party of Korea this time. From 2003 to 2008, he acted in roles including chief of staff to the liberal President Roh Moo-hyun and was very much a mainstream member of that administration. Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party is polling close behind in second place. The two politicians were nominated as presidential candidates after winning their respective party primaries on April 3 and 4. Both are strongly progressive; providing no major new scandal shakes things up again, the next president of South Korea will almost certainly be one of these liberal candidates.
Deteriorating Relations with Neighbors
What foreign policies will the incoming South Korean administration implement? Like the nation’s conservatives, the new government must deal with a negative legacy from Park.
Right now, South Korea faces an extremely tough diplomatic environment. Donald Trump is the new president of the United States and bilateral relations are far from smooth. When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, South Korea, and China in mid-March, he said in an interview with a US media outlet that Japan was “our most important ally in the region,” while describing South Korea as “an important partner.” This made a clear distinction between the two US allies in Northeast Asia. South Korea’s strategic importance is diminishing in American eyes as the focal point of contention between the United States and China shifts from the Korean Peninsula to the South China Sea. Coupled with trade issues, which constitute a central concern for Trump, the future of Washington-Seoul relations looks uncertain.
Relations with China are even more problematic. On March 7, US military bases in South Korea began deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense anti-ballistic missile system. The Chinese government reacted with an open display of its economic might by banning group tours to South Korea. It also closed Lotte supermarkets in China after the company provided land for the THAAD system.
Even following the comfort women agreement at the end of 2015, ties with Japan also remain rocky. The Japanese government withdrew its ambassador to South Korea and consul-general in Busan from January 9 to April 4 in protest at the installation of statues representing the comfort women outside its Seoul embassy and Busan consulate.
Meanwhile, the nation’s greatest security threat, North Korea, continues to conduct missile tests, drawing increased sanctions from around the world.
Under these circumstances, the new South Korean government has limited diplomatic options. It has virtually no way of inspiring a more positive stance from the wavering Trump administration. Even amid growing antipathy toward THAAD from China, it would be almost impossible to ask the United States to remove the already deployed system. The Japanese government is taking a hard line on the comfort women statues, but public opinion in South Korea is opposed to removal, so either choice for the new government carries major risk. Improving relations with North Korea has been a central plank of progressive policy in South Korea to date. Yet the country’s next government will likely face international criticism if it embarks unilaterally on a policy of conciliation while the North remains under strict United Nation sanctions.
Unfortunately for the next occupant of the Blue House, Park’s almost frantically active foreign policy only painted South Korea into a corner.
When Park came to power in 2013, US-Chinese contention in Northeast Asia was not as serious as today. This allowed the South Korean government a certain degree of freedom. From around 2014, however, the South China Sea dispute intensified opposition between the two superpowers, and Washington became increasingly dissatisfied with South Korean policies that favored China. Nonetheless, Park continued to aggravate Washington by leaning toward Beijing. Ultimately she was forced into major compromises in the twilight of her administration to maintain good relations with the United States and its key ally Japan. With the former, she had to approve THAAD deployment, which South Korea had previously indirectly refused due to its ties with China. With Japan, she abandoned the demand for legal compensation for comfort women at the end of 2015.
Adhering to an existing policy line despite a change in the international situation caused the same kind of problems in relations with North Korea. While the United States and Japan were ratcheting up their sanctions, the Park government began by increasing economic exchange through the Kaesong Industrial Complex. North-South trade reached a record high in 2015. As if in mockery of this achievement, North Korea has continued to test nuclear and ballistic missiles. South Korea was finally driven to close the Kaesong complex—in part due to pressure from neighboring countries—thereby losing its biggest card in its diplomacy with the North.
Briefly, Park attempted to act independently of the United States, China, Japan, and Russia as head of a South Korea that was newly confident due to its economic growth. In displaying unprecedented strength, though, she soon came up against its limits. The surrounding powers grew concerned at the showy independence of South Korean actions, and were prompted to play their own strong cards to curtail them. Their simultaneous moves left South Korea in a tight place between the United States and China with limited diplomatic options. Knowing this well, both Japan and North Korea took a tough line, meaning that today South Korea faces trouble in every direction.
Improved Communication Needed
What approach should the new South Korean government take? Naturally, it should try to win back the diplomatic trust lost under Park.
The first thing it needs to do is broaden its diplomatic outreach. As seen particularly in relations with Japan and North Korea, Park tried to apply pressure by shutting off summit meetings and other channels. But this just led to deadlock and drew criticisms of self-righteousness from many countries.
South Korea lacks prominent economic or military strength, so it is difficult for it to affect the nearby international situation through unilateral actions. To achieve improvements, it must work together with its neighbors. The next South Korean president should arrange summits at an early stage with each country’s leader, proactively demonstrating that he and his government can be trusted as diplomatic partners. By doing so, Seoul can greatly affect the stance of powers in the region, including particularly Japan and the United States, which are wary of a new, progressive administration.
The incoming government should also refrain from sending out hasty diplomatic messages. South Korea has regularly switched its stance based on domestic opinion, but even democracies need to conduct foreign policy in ways that maintain trust with other countries. They should not be influenced to change direction solely through conditions at home. Nonetheless, South Korea has repeatedly done so, including when a new government has come into power. This has greatly damaged the country’s reputation among its neighbors.
More specifically, the most important task is to explain the international situation frankly to the public, making clear what choices are actually viable for the country. Even in a democracy, merely reflecting the will of the people in policy without discussion is not good politics. Instead, because the country is a democracy, it is important to clarify to citizens—unable to fully grasp the complex domestic and international state of affairs due to their busy lives—what outlook the country and government faces, and to persistently maintain a dialogue with them. If the new administration does not do this, it will soon be caught once again between intransigent public opinion and a tough international environment.
Finally, President Park was particularly criticized by South Koreans for her poor communication. The people found fault with her for not responding to public sentiment. But communication should not only move in one direction, from the people to the government. If the government carefully explains the situation to citizens, they will appreciate it more clearly. Naturally, the same two-way communication is also essential with other countries in the region.
Will the new administration be able to establish improved domestic and international communication? That remains to be seen.
(Originally published in Japanese on April 13, 2017. Banner photo: Former South Korean President Park Geun-Hye is transported from the court to prison after an arrest warrant was issued on March 31, 2017. © Yonhap News/Aflo.)
Professor at Kobe University; president, Pan-Pacific Forum. Received his doctorate in law from Kyoto University. Has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, Korea University, and Sejong Institute. His works include Kankoku ni okeru “ken’i-shugiteki” taisei no seiritsu (The Establishment of the Authoritarian System in South Korea), which won the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences and Humanities, and Nik-Kan rekishi ninshiki mondai to wa nani ka(What Is the Historical Perception Issue Between Japan and South Korea?), which won the Yoshino Sakuzō Prize.