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Park Geun-hye

The many challenges facing South Korea’s new leader

From relations with China and the United Sates to reining in the ambitions of North Korea and tackling domestic issues, Park Geun-hye’s successor will have his plate full

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 12:01am

South Korea’s leadership vacuum has stalled the nation’s economic momentum and harmed its foreign relations. Impeached conservative leader Park Geun-hye has finally been charged and presidential elections in mere weeks will put a successor in place. The winner is likely to be one of two liberal candidates, the political left having gained overwhelming support as a result of the corruption and influence-peddling scandal. Significant challenges lie ahead for the victor, but with carefully crafted diplomacy and progressive vision, there is a chance for unity, working relations with China and the United States and engagement with North Korea.

The start of the election campaign last week gave the candidates just 22 days to present their platforms to voters and the winner takes office the day after the May 9 poll. Clear front-runners Moon Jae-in and Ahn Cheol-soo have less than a decade of experience as lawmakers between them, although the former was a top aide to disgraced former president Roh Tae-woo. Park’s refusal to stand aside for an interim president as allegations of wrongdoing mounted against her and friend Choi Soon-sil caused six months of political paralysis at a time when strong leadership was desperately needed. The new leader will have to quickly come to grips with an unfamiliar job by learning skills necessary to navigate difficult economic, social and potentially dangerous foreign policy waters.

Relations with China need to be patched up, a missile shield the US is building in the South having caused a souring of diplomatic ties and disruption to trade and tourism. But North Korea poses the greatest threat, with leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile programmes endangering regional peace and stability. A failed missile launch on April 15 before US Vice-President Mike Pence visited the demilitarised zone between the Koreas was followed by a promise by the North’s vice-foreign minister Han Song-ryol that an all-out war would result if Washington took military action. US President Donald Trump has given such a warning, saying his country is ready to act if necessary. The South, an ally of the US, would be caught in the middle of such a conflict, although another challenge for the incoming president is Trump’s nationalist posturing; Pence said his country wanted to review an agreed free-trade deal. Ties with Japan over disputed islands and a 2015 comfort women agreement remain strained.

But the next president also faces a host of domestic issues brought about by cosy relations between politics and big business, soaring national debt and divisions in society between rich and poor, young and old and right and left. Prompt, sharp and vigorous leadership on each policy front will be necessary from whoever is elected.