The bombshell disclosures, mass protests, and obstinacy from the president to the very end – the epic downfall of Park Geun-hye will reverberate in South Korea for years to come. Yet the consequences won’t be limited to the domestic sphere. The president’s removal comes at a delicate time for the alliances and interests that underpin East Asian security. If President Trump’s rhetoric doused the US alliance system in gasoline; Park’s downfall could just be the spark that ignites it.
Relations with the North are a key consideration for any South Korean government, and over the years, different governments have tried different policies in their attempts to coexist with a volatile and dangerous regime in Pyongyang. Broadly speaking, these policies can be divided into two categories: engagement and deterrence. The standard bearer for the former was former president Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy. This policy lasted from 1998 to 2008, and it saw the South actively trying to engage the North and establish points of economic and political contact, but all within the two red lines of not tolerating military threats from the North and not making any attempt at integration. The idea underpinning the policy was that, using economic and political engagement, the two Koreas could emphasize the cultural and economic links that unite them and minimize the ideology that divides them. The subtext also being that liberal engagement could usurp the authoritarian Kim regime from within as economic liberalization produced inevitable political reform. This is the same logic that has guided US policy toward China since Deng Xiaoping.
The Sunshine Policy ended in 2008, when newly elected conservative President Lee Myung-bak ended aid programs to the North and scrapped several agreements that had previously been agreed upon. President Lee believed that the Sunshine Policy was falling short of its goal of altering the North’s behavior, and that much of the South’s aid money was finding its way into missile and nuclear weapon development. The final nail in the coffin came in 2009, when the North performed its first successful nuclear weapons test.
President Lee was succeeded by the now impeached President Park, who continued her predecessor’s hard line in relations with the North.
More sunshine around the corner? With the impeachment now upheld, the question becomes: Who will replace President Park when new elections are held within 60 days? Currently leading in the polls is Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (deobureo minjudang). Moon represents the best hope of the liberals returning to the Blue House after a decade-long absence, but he will first have to come out on top against other Democratic Party candidates in a primary. Another rising star of the progressives is Lee Jae-Myeong, a self-taught former factory worker who describes himself as the ‘Bernie Sanders of South Korea.’
Both Moon and Lee hold foreign policy views that are starkly different from President Park. Both support a pivot toward engaging the North, citing the failures of deterrence over the past decade. They also believe that a singular reliance on the United States is hurting South Korea vis-à-vis China. Neither would have green-lighted the THAAD deployment, which threatens to impact the South’s economic relations with China, though it remains to be seen if they would be willing to order the weapons off the Peninsula, as the missiles will be in place by the time the presidential election is held (surely by design on the part of the Trump administration). Broadly speaking, the liberal candidates want to move the South away from Washington and toward a triangular and more flexible alignment with China.
One potential starting point for a new burst of sunshine would be to restart the Kaesong industrial complex, which President Park scuttled back in February 2016. Kaesong was the crowning jewel of the original Sunshine Policy, but the jointly run industrial park has been intermittently closed and opened over the years as tensions flare on the Peninsula.
Beijing suddenly finds itself holding all the cards. The fall of the Park administration is a fortuitous turn of events for the Chinese government. It had already been applying some intense economic pressure in terms of the THAAD deployment. China’s government-run media outlets have issued clarion calls for consumers to use their wallets to voice anger with the South Korean government; there have been (tolerated) protests organized by students and retirees; and tourism officials have barred operators from sending tour groups to the South.
One particular South Korean store chain, Lotte, has reportedly had over half of its stores closed in China over a variety of regulatory and safety infractions.
The backlash will likely be reined in quickly, however, as too much anti-Korea sentiment risks tilting the upcoming presidential elections in an unwelcome direction for the more pro-China candidates like Moon Jae-in.
The whole situation has turned out to be a clinic for geopolitical importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). By virtue of proximity and, critically, its willingness to bring its economic leverage to bear in diplomatic and security matters, China is one country that South Korea should be mindful about crossing due to economic blowback. The TPP was supposed to reorient trade flows away from China and toward US allies, and in doing so take the bite out of these kinds of threats. That the TPP is now dead on arrival suggests that it will be harder and harder for the South to side with Washington on zero-sum security matters in the future.
The North is also watching closely. North-South relations over the past decade have been fraught to say the least, with everything from the sinking of the Cheonan to a laundry list of missile and nuclear tests serving to block out the sunshine that might have otherwise warmed the Peninsula if the liberals were in power. Pyongyang will certainly view these presidential elections as an opportunity to extract new concessions from its southern neighbor, and as such, moderate its behavior in a way that suggests a new Sunshine Policy could bear fruit.
Trump administration lined up for a dose of geopolitical reality. The fall of President Park illustrates a surprising strength of institutions in South Korea’s democracy – not bad for a country that isn’t far removed from corporatist authoritarianism. And like any good democracy, there has always been a robust level of public debate in the South. One enduring topic is the utility of the US-ROK alliance in the modern era, and whether it does more harm than good in terms of providing peace on the Peninsula.
Those South Koreans who don’t support the alliance have a lot to be happy about ahead of new presidential elections. Trump’s constant questioning of the alliance during his own presidential campaign has undercut America’s would-be supporters in South Korea (though it should be said that support remains generally high). Then there’s the state of North-South relations over the past few years, of which a powerful argument can be made that deterrence and singular reliance on the United States has simply not worked, and that the South less safe since the end of the Sunshine Policy. And finally there’s the China factor, which suggests that the current policy of antagonizing the Middle Kingdom is making the South less prosperous as well.
Without taking a side as to whether these statements are actually true, taken together they will make for a convincing argument for a return to liberal rule in two months, especially when most of the dissenting voices are politically tainted due to the Park scandal.
It’s very likely that the liberals are going to win the South Korean presidential election, and after they do they will seek to reorient the South away from Washington and toward Beijing. When that happens, the fate of the THAAD will serve as a barometer of just how serious the new government is about its strategic rebalancing. The THAAD’s removal would serve as a powerful symbolic gesture to bring the North back to the negotiating table and get ROK-China economic ties on track again. It could also be the death knell of the US treaty system in East Asia, at least in its current form.