South Korea’s Political Crisis Could Become Regional
After weeks of massive public protests in downtown Seoul of up to one million people, South Korea’s parliament decisively impeached President Park Geun-hye last Friday. The vote now propels South Korea into the next phase of its political crisis, which will culminate when the nation’s Constitutional Court ratifies or rejects the impeachment vote, within six months. Initially indicating during the run-up to the vote that she would resign if impeached, Park apparently has chosen to fight the parliament’s vote.
According to South Korean law, Park is now removed from power, pending the court decision. The Prime Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, now becomes acting president. Yet Hwang is seen as a loyal Park subordinate, and is himself unpopular with the protesters and Korea’s opposition parties.
This is a time of extreme uncertainty on the Korean peninsula, and the next months could see dangerous instability. Most importantly, North Korea may try to take advantage of the crisis, possibly by testing the caretaker president. An attack on South Korean territory or military facilities, as happened back in 2010, could result in a full armed conflict, if the caretaker government wants to show its power. Alternately, a lack of response would further embolden the North. A missile test could also spark a South Korean response, especially if one goes wrong. While they may see the end of their term looming, those in the Obama administration should be prepared for a crisis in their last six weeks in power; just as importantly, the incoming Trump team needs a policy immediately, for they may face an alliance challenge soon after taking power.
A progressive government would likely tilt away from Washington and lead to a less effective alliance, as happened the last time a left-wing government was in power during the 2000s.
In addition, the impeachment of Park moves South Korea’s progressive party one large step closer to power. The next election will happen within 60 days of her resignation or the court’s ruling. A progressive government would likely tilt away from Washington and lead to a less effective alliance, as happened the last time a left-wing government was in power during the 2000s. The progressives could also chose to move closer to China, and even tilt towards Pyongyang. All of that would call into question the near-term future of the alliance, and give Beijing or Pyongyang an opportunity to try and reduce America’s role on the peninsula, and further isolate Japan in Northeast Asia.
Facing both these short- and medium-term challenges, Washington needs to reaffirm confidence in our democratic ally South Korea, and maintain the highest-level contact with the interim leadership. We should recommit to our alliance guarantees, and encourage a trilateral set of discussions among Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo over potential North Korean-inspired provocation and stability on the Korean Peninsula. The Obama and Trump administrations should keep Beijing informed of our discussions with our allies, so as to dispel any Chinese attempt to take advantage of a crisis.
Throughout history, the Korean peninsula has been the so-called “cockpit” of Asia, the nexus of great power competition, and the ground on which China, Japan, Russia, and the United States have battled for influence and power. Park Geun-hye’s impeachment has opened the door to another round of instability, and it will take calm and sober management to maintain security on one of the world’s tensest borders, and keep democratic South Korea in a beneficial partnership with the United States and other liberal nations.
Michael Auslin, author of“The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region” (Yale University Press, 2017), is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.