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South Korea’s Political Impasse could Redefine the Balance in the Korean Peninsula

Following the recent decision of the South Korea’s Constitutional Court to remove President Park Guen-hye in the wake of the massive scandal that has deeply shaken South Korean’s political and economic landscape, former President Park was arrested last Friday and is currently detained at the Seoul Detention Center while awaiting trail. If convicted, she will be facing more than 10 years in prison.

Indeed, hundred of thousands have railed in the street demanding President Park’s resignation since October 2016. The scandal has unveiled a large network of bribery, corruption and influence peddling that has led to the arrest of important political members such as Moon Hyung-pyo, Chairman of the National Pension Service (NPS), but also Samsung Vice President Lee Jae-young and several prominent members of the Chaebol financial clique face trial and severe charges.

While South Korea’s political history has been characterized by a deep turmoil during the turbulent years that have marked the democratic transition from the authoritarian rule period, President Park has become the first president to be forced from the office and later arrested after being involved in a large-scale corruption scandal since the military era.

South Korea will be electing a new president on May and the attention remains focused on Park’s successor and on his or her ability to define a new critical strategy to address the North Korean issue. President Park relied on strong measures to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, marking a significant shift from a trustpolitik strategy championed during the first years of her Administration.

Following the escalation of tense relations with Pyongyang, culminated with a series of missiles and nuclear tests, Park Administration was characterized by an increasingly open and harsh confrontation with Pyongyang. In less than a year, Park Administration closed the jointly operated Kaesong Industrial Facility, denounced the violation of human rights in North Korea while encouraging additional sanctions targeting North Korea, stressed Seoul’s level of preparedness in the event of an imminent collapse of the North Korea’s regime and also openly disclosed the existence of a plan to kill Kim Jong-un and his close entourage in order to decapitate the command-chain in the event of a war.

The sudden end of Park Administration is expected to affect the delicate balance in the region. In the attempt to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program, Park’s Administration reinforced the security ties with Washington and has also promoted a new entente with Tokyo, considered a valuable asset in containing North Korea’s nuclear threat despite decades of tensions caused by the historical legacy of Imperial Japan’s occupation of the Korea.

Last November, under the auspices of Washington, Seoul and Tokyo agreed to sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement, allowing the two countries to share classified information including North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities. The agreement was strongly opposed by the Minjoo Party, concerned about the involvement of Seoul into a larger missile defense pact with Japan that could endanger the unsteady balance in the Korean peninsula while alimenting additional tensions with Beijing.

Besides the evident turmoil within South Korea’s political landscape, the new scenario characterized by the sudden end of the Park Administration will be a determining element in outlining a new direction in South Korea’s security priorities, while Pyongyang continues to cast a dreadful nuclear shadow across the region.

In the wake of President Park’s dismissal, the attention on the recalibration of the relations with Beijing and the growing tensions with Pyongyang aliment the debate. Relations with China have been strained by the acceleration of the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system strongly supported by Washington, alarmed about the resurgence of North Korea’s nuclear and missile program.

Under the rising leadership of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s notorious provocations and sinister nuclear ambitions have reached an unprecedented level of threats, jeopardizing not only the unsteady military balance in the region but accelerating the dangerous confrontation with Washington and its allies. Pyongyang has conducted an increasing number of ballistic tests, creating concern about its fast-paced ability to develop ballistic missile capabilities to reach the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped warhead.

The end of the strategic patience advocated by Obama Administration toward North Korea has led to a critical outcome, as stressed by Secretary of State Tillerson during his recent visit to South Korea. While the United States have reiterated their commitment in defending its critical ally from Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, the chance of a military option remains on the table. Trump Administration’s concerns about the volatility of the regional scenario, constantly exposed to a consistent number of strategic shifts jeopardizing Washington’s presence, have certainly contributed to the renovated close entente between South Korea and Japan.

South Korea’s emerging security challenges and opportunities 

In the last few weeks, the future of the US-ROK Alliance, relations with China and the nature of the strategic approach in the Korean peninsula that will be determined by South Korea’s new president have further fueled the debate.

President Park’s dramatic downfall has already galvanized the opposition and opened the doors for a return to power of the Minjoo Party led by its front runner candidate Moon Jae-in. The impeachment has exposed the Saenuri Party to a large scandal, putting in disarray its core leadership and also creating a strong fracture within its party members and supporters. More important, it has almost certainly determined a marked change in the South Korea political leadership, opening the door for a return of the Minjoo Party as leading forces after many years of the unchallenged prominence of the Seanuri Party.

The expected return of Minjoo party to the power after almost ten years represents an additional shock in defining the new contours of South Korea’s tense relations with China and also in dealing with the emerging threat represented by North Korea. Minjoo Presidential candidate, Moon Jae-in, former Chief of Staff during Roh Administration and former Chairman of the Minjoo is considered as a front runner in the upcoming election after the sudden announcement of Former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon to not run as a candidate for the South Korea’s presidency.

Moon Jae-in is a former human right lawyer and also a well-known political figure in the South Korea ran as a presidential candidate in 2012 and he was eventually defeated by President Park. Moon Jae-in has several times expressed his wish to foster a wide recalibration of South Korea’s foreign policy and security. During the years of Park Administration, Minjoo Party called several times for a reduction of military engagement with Washington and the promotion of a greater level of diplomatic and economic engagement with North Korea, as the ultimate tool to promote peace and foster a path toward the stability of the inter-Korean relations.

Minjoo Party has also often criticized when not openly opposed the deployment of the THAAD, considered an ineffective measure, but also expressed concern about the deterioration of the relations with China. Last January, in the attempt to reduce the frictions with China, Minjoo lawmakers traveled to Beijing to promote a positive framework to enhance the level of dialogue between the two countries after the decision of Seoul to participate to Washington-led anti-missile system. Beijing’s relations with South Korea have reached a tense peak after China has banned Chinese tour groups from travelling to South Korea. Mending ties with China represents an important goal for Minjoo leaders since Beijing is not only an important trade partner but certainly remains a critical actor in bolstering any diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang.

On the other hand, Minjoo Party leaders have expressed their desire to mend relations with Beijing while fostering a different approach to defuse an incoming crisis in the Korean peninsula. With the front runner presidential candidate Moon Jae-in likely to be elected as a president, a new direction in foreign policy is extremely plausible. It is also expected that the new priorities in Seoul’s agenda will be not to antagonize North Korea, trying to encourage dialogue and foster engagement rather than maintaining a hard line position.

For instance, this might coincide with Moon’s decision to reopen Kaesong and even remove some economic sanctions in the attempt to reduce the level of economic and diplomatic isolation that has alimented Pyongyang’s rampant bellicose posture and that could ultimately ignite a larger crisis. Yet, it is unlikely that this could induce North Korea’s leadership to suspend its nuclear and military activities, especially after the recent declaration of Pyongyang in the wake of Washington’s airstrike in Syria.

It remains difficult to predict whatever Seoul will remain strongly committed in upholding any strategic initiatives promoted by Washington in the region, while the new forthcoming South Korean Administration might choose to determine a different direction from the path originally marked by Obama’s Pivot to Asia. There is no doubt that the alliance will remain, yet the new Administration might be inclined to foster a deep recalibration of the level of cooperation between Seoul and Washington while fostering a renovated entente with Beijing in order to defuse an imminent crisis in the Korean peninsula.

 

Author

Daniele Ermito
Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito

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