The tragedy of South Korean President Park Geun-hye is in its third and final act. She has been impeached by an overwhelming margin – 234 votes. Her power will now be suspended and the Constitutional Court will determine whether to uphold the motion. Meanwhile, South Koreans will have 60 days to choose her successor, but given the rank of top contenders, that’s easier said than done. Incidentally, all her probable alternatives work great for China – if not so much for South Korea.
Those most likely to replace Park are UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, stepping down at the end of the month, who would probably represent the president’s conservative Saenuri Party; Moon Jae-in, former leader of the progressive Minjoo Party; and Ahn Cheol-soo, founder of the centrist People’s Party.
Ban was named by The Economist as “the dullest – and among the worst” secretary generals to ever hold the UN office, Moon has been described by opponents as a North Korean stooge and Ahn recently resigned from his post amid a kickback scandal. Ban is perhaps the best bet, merely in terms of popular appeal, provided the scandal surrounding Park doesn’t bring him down with her. But he’s probably not the best option for Koreans.
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Even those who have worked with Ban have little good to say. In 2009, Mona Juul, a Norwegian representative to the UN, sent out a memo in which she called Ban “spineless” and said he shrank from defending human rights in places like Myanmar. Later, Inga-Britt Ahlenius, then head of the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, filed a report in which she said Ban’s office had “no transparency”.
“Ban lacks the moral leadership of a [Dag] Hammarskjold or a [Kofi] Annan,” wrote James Traub in a July 2010 piece for Foreign Policy. Traub noted the Juul memo and the Ahlenius report, and painted a picture of a man completely in over his head or, worse, indifferent. More likely Ban, like Beijing, favours non-interventionism. But what South Korea needs most, especially in the wake of Park’s scandal, and without the promise of moral leadership from the US any time soon, is someone with a shockproof moral compass. The direction that the country needs isn’t likely to come from someone who has earned himself the nickname “Nowhere Man”.
His non-interventionism, however, would make him an attractive candidate from Beijing’s perspective. For one thing, Ban has refused to acknowledge Taiwan, which, especially after US president-elect Donald Trump’s recent phone call with the Taiwanese president, could be an especially important trait in China’s view.
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Still, possibly the greatest point of tension between Seoul and Beijing right now is the planned deployment of the US-built antimissile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) on South Korean soil. This has so incensed Beijing it has effectively levelled sanctions on South Korea, even opening investigations into South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group as payback for its golf course being picked for the deployment. Ban hasn’t said much on the issue.
Moon, on the other hand, has said relations with China are more important than THAAD. Six members of Moon’s party recently flew to China to protest against THAAD alongside Chinese leaders. Moon would also be the best candidate to ease tensions with the North. He follows in the footsteps of former president Roh Moo-hyun, who was known for his conciliatory approach to Pyongyang. And Song Min-soon, foreign minister under Roh, claimed in his memoir earlier this year that Seoul decided to abstain from a UN resolution in 2007 regarding human rights violations in North Korea after consulting with Pyongyang, and that the decision to consult the regime was backed by Moon. According to Lee Jung-hyun, chairman of the Saenuri Party, Moon was “virtually in league with Pyongyang”.
But while Pyongyang and Beijing are ostensibly allies, being closer to Pyongyang doesn’t necessarily make one closer to Beijing. As the scholar Andrei Lankov wrote in a piece for NK News: “In Beijing, you hear again and again that North Korean actions actually help the United States … including the THAAD system, a complete anathema to Beijing policymakers.”
In other words, a Moon administration might make life easier for the North, but by giving Kim Jong-un wiggle room, any hope of denuclearisation may fade even further, putting Beijing in the hot seat and possibly aggravating relations with Seoul.
Finally, there’s Ahn, who rose to fame after creating the nation’s leading computer antivirus program, Ahnlab, in 1995. Because he supports a welfare state, Ahn has been dubbed the “Bernie Sanders of Korea”, but that’s misleading since Ahn is slightly further to the right than Moon.
On matters of foreign policy, however, there’s little palpable difference.
Like Moon, Ahn thinks Park is too hard on the North and would like to cut an economic deal to get Pyongyang to denuclearise. In a February interview with Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute, Ahn said: “China … can play a critical diplomatic role in resolving the problems with North Korea.”
Both Moon and Ahn have spoken out against THAAD. And both their parties oppose another deal, favoured by Saenuri – the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, a deal which Beijing despises. The main difference, from Beijing’s view, may simply be that Moon is much closer to the North than Ahn. Whether the current scandal with Park will poison THAAD and GSOMIA for South Koreans, or they will feel threatened enough by the North to lean towards Ban despite his failings, remains to be seen.
South Koreans have a saying: “Even if you know the way, ask.” It’s clear everyone knows the way from here. Taking Park out of office is pushing against an open door. But one must ask: where does this way lead? ■