With Park Geun-hye’s exit, jockeying begins for power over the fate of Korean peninsula
Donald Kirk says in South Korea, the liberals and conservatives are gearing up for a showdown in the upcoming presidential election, even as the US and China weigh in to try and break the impasse over THAAD and, ultimately, how to deal with a belligerent North Korea
South Korea enters an uncertain new era with the ouster of Park Geun-hye as president. As the “candlelight protests” by her foes in central Seoul fade into history, Koreans can pride themselves on a legal process that began with the arrest of her close friend, and then her impeachment by the National Assembly, as approved by the constitutional court.
Korean democracy, however, faces many more tests. The election of a new president has to be held within two months of the court decision. Passions are running high. Park’s critics, savouring the triumph of her downfall, face severe opposition from conservatives, notably an older generation with memories of the Korean war and its aftermath of hardship.
A liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, leads the opinion polls, but conservatives, waving Korean and sometimes American flags, promise a tough fight. The left-right struggle is sure to test the durability of South Korean democracy, three decades after equally intense protests led to the adoption of a “democracy constitution” that ended military dictatorship. Many of Park’s advocates look back fondly on the role of her father, Park Chung-hee, the former general who ruled Korea with an iron hand for more than 18 years before his assassination in 1979. He may have been a dictator, they say, but he oversaw the rise of Korea as an industrial power.
A chief complaint about conservative leadership is that domination of the economy by the chaebol or conglomerates is depriving innovative entrepreneurs from competing effectively. Liberals decry the corrupted bond between chaebol and government and applaud the trial of Lee Jae-yong, de facto chief of the Samsung empire, now in jail fighting charges of bribery in the scandal that ensnared Park.
Besides raising the whole issue of chaebol power, the campaign revolves around South Korea’s long-lasting alliance with the United States dating from the Korean war. The prospect of a left-leaning candidate taking over the government raises the question of how to defend the South against a North Korean regime that would like nothing better than to exploit the right-left division in South Korean life.
One immediate problem focuses on THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, the system for shooting down enemy missiles as high as 150km above the Earth’s surface. Even as the components of a THAAD battery begin arriving in South Korea, liberal candidates strongly oppose implanting it on a golf course south of Seoul owned by the Lotte Group. Foes of the US-Korean alliance are eager to demonstrate against THAAD in front of the American embassy on the wide avenue where they were holding their candlelight rallies.
On a broader level, US and South Korean leaders would have difficulty seeing eye to eye on how to respond to North Korean nuclear and missile tests. The US Defence Secretary James Mattis, in Seoul in early February, promised an “overwhelming” response to any use of nuclear weapons. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting China, Korea and Japan this week, would like to persuade the Chinese that THAAD presents no threat while pleading, yet again, for China to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programme.
US officials are sure to try to reason with the next Korean president on military needs and sanctions in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s determination to test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a warhead to a distant target. Korean liberal reformers wish to revive the “sunshine policy”, initiated by former president Kim Dae-jung and maintained by his successor Roh Moo-hyun.
We may expect similar strains on the alliance if a liberal becomes president of South Korea amid disagreements on THAAD, sanctions and much else. Inevitably, China will assert its influence, fiercely inveighing against THAAD while curbing Korean imports, investment and cultural contacts.
American diplomats may long for the days when they got along quite well with Park. They will have to summon all their negotiating skills as they struggle to keep the alliance intact as a bulwark against rising threats from north of the demilitarised zone that has divided the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean war nearly 64 years ago.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea