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The ‘far-reaching’ implications of South Korean president’s ouster

Park was the first woman to hold the country’s highest office as well as the first person to be removed from office since the country’s founding president fled into exile in 1960. Image via Flickr.
Suzanne Ogden Professor and Interim Chair of Political Science See More
Last week, the Constitutional Court of South Korea ruled unanimously to remove President Park Geun-hye from office, the latest in a string of action that started with her impeachment in December on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

Park was the first woman to hold the country’s highest office as well as the first person to be removed from office since the country’s founding president fled into exile in 1960. South Korea will hold an election to replace her on May 9, but her ouster will likely have a “far-ranging” impact on the politics of the region and on U.S. relations with South Korea and other East Asian countries, said Suzanne Ogden, professor emeritus in the of Department of Political Science and an East Asia specialist.

We asked Ogden to examine the situation.

Park, seen largely as a conservative icon, will likely be replaced by someone from the opposition party. How will this shift the fraught relationship between North Korea and South Korea?

Elections to replace President Park Geun-hye of South Korea will take place this May. At the moment, it is believed that Moon Jae-in, who is far to the left of Park and her conservative party, will win. The divisiveness and uncertainty caused by Park’s removal, and the possibility of a major change in leadership, is far-ranging.

North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), has had a hostile relationship with South Korea since the Korean War, but has become far more belligerent in recent years—in part because of the South’s close alignment with the United States. Due to this sudden upheaval in South Korea’s political sphere, however, North Korea appears at present hesitant to do anything provocative—such as further missile tests or in any way take advantage of the instability in South Korea—that would cause the South Koreans to oppose the election of Moon. Moon has consistently promoted reconciliation with the North, and has been opposed to what he and his liberal Democratic Party view as an unhealthy and dependent relationship with the U.S.

How do you expect new leadership will affect U.S.-South Korean relations, especially in terms of U.S. nuclear antimissile operations in South Korea?

Regardless of their political leanings, many South Koreans believe that the military alliance with the U.S. is actually endangering their country by raising hostilities both with North Korea and China. American and South Korean “training exercises” in the waters near North Korea—in particular the decision of the South Korean government under former President Park to allow the U.S. to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD—have been particularly upsetting to North Korea and to China. The Trump administration is rushing to complete the deployment of this system before a new, possibly less friendly, president is elected in May.

How important is the THAAD system to the security of South Korea and what implications does it have for the delicate relationship between the U.S. and East Asia?

There are several important aspects to the THAAD system. First, like all efforts over the past 50 years to create an anti-ballistic missile system, it does not work. That is, it is unlikely that it could bring down a missile from North Korea. Furthermore, North Korea does not need to launch major missiles to invade South Korea. It could easily overwhelm it through a ground attack; Seoul is just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone.

Second, the U.S. could have chosen to install a THAAD system that had a radar system limited to North Korea. Instead, the U.S. is installing a system with a powerful radar system that covers much of China. Of course, the U.S. claims that the purpose of THAAD is to protect against North Korean missiles, but there is no reason the Chinese should believe this. The Chinese are thus far retaliating by cutting off South Korean imports and popular TV programs; boycotting and shutting down extremely profitable South Korean stores in China; no longer using South Korean parts in their manufacturing of goods; and cutting off Chinese tourism to South Korea. As a result, South Korea is already feeling the negative impact of its close alliance with the U.S.

The U.S. is, of course, hoping that once THAAD is deployed, a newly elected government will have a more difficult time deciding to remove it; but the U.S. needs to rethink its strategy of dealing with South Korea primarily with military tools rather than with diplomacy. The new U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, does not yet have a team in place to deal with East Asia, so he has little expertise to call upon in order to address the very complicated interrelationships of the two Koreas, China, Japan, and the U.S. He will be in Seoul later this week at a time when South Korea is itself deeply divided over the benefits and liabilities of being part of an alliance with the U.S. It is a complicated chessboard on which the U.S. is playing and it needs to remember that every move it makes will elicit counter-moves that may result in a negative outcome for both the U.S. and South Korea.

Image courtesy of the Republic of Korea via Flickr.