Over the last several weekends, roughly 4 million Koreans have taken part in demonstrations in Seoul and other cities with the aim of bringing down President Park Geun-hye, who has now been impeached for abuses of power and other misdeeds. The immediate consequence is that South Korea is politically paralyzed, awaiting a further ruling on impeachment and probable new elections in spring.
The government crisis began in October with the discovery of tapes belonging to a close friend and confidante of President Park named Choi Soon-sil. The tapes revealed a bizarre situation in which Choi, whose father had been close to Park’s father, the authoritarian former President Park Chung-hee, was given access to all kinds of official documents even though she (Choi) had no government position or other authority. Choi apparently exerted great influence over the president’s speeches and decisions. As the full extent of that influence became apparent, Park’s popularity plummeted; her approval rating was 4 percent by the end of November.
The scandal has led to other charges. Choi used her closeness to Park to extract millions of dollars in donations to her foundation from some of South Korea’s leading conglomerates. Park is said to have been fully aware of this gambit, for which Choi has been arrested. She will go on trial December 19 on fraud and embezzlement charges. Park is also being charged with dereliction of duty in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014 in which 304 people, mostly students, drowned. Park only belatedly reacted to the news; her whereabouts (dubbed the “seven missing hours”) remain a mystery and are being investigated.
The rising chorus of anger made it impossible for many in Park’s own party, Saenuri, to support her continuation in office. The last public protest before the impeachment vote, on December 3, drew about 2.3 million people. The vote was 234-56, with 62 members of Saenuri joining the opposition. President Park has now been suspended from office, and her prime minister—who is almost as unpopular as she due to corruption and other accusations—has taken over. The next step is a vote of the 9-member Constitutional Court, which has 180 days to rule on the validity of the impeachment. A two-thirds vote is necessary to uphold impeachment, in which case new elections will be held.
President Park has refused to resign despite the overwhelming disapproval. She says she will await the Constitutional Court’s ruling. This stubbornness grates against the public, which continues to demonstrate, demanding her resignation. But the main effect of this standoff is that the caretaker government has very limited powers in domestic and foreign affairs.
Meanwhile, several candidates are already preparing to contest a new presidential election. Two are of particular interest: Moon Jae-in, a human-rights lawyer who once headed the Democratic United Party and who might even have beaten Park in the 2012 election had not Korean intelligence spread false rumors about him on the Internet, which the police then covered up until exposure after the election; and retiring United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who at the moment has no political party. It could boil down to a contest between a progressive who will attempt to re-engage North Korea, and a well-known diplomat who will be a reliable friend of Washington and uphold a hard-nosed policy on the North.
While the paralysis in Seoul might be thought of as an opportunity for North Korea, the opposite is more likely going to hold. Not only is Kim Jong-un probably going to want to see how the presidential election comes out—meaning whether someone like Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun takes over, since both pursued peaceful relations with Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un surely also has his eyes on how Donald Trump’s administration will behave, hoping perhaps that US ties with Seoul will loosen as Trump once seemed to promise. (Recall that Trump once said he might invite Kim Jong-un to Washington.) A progressive leader in Seoul may welcome some distancing from the US, as surely would China. These days South Korea-China relations have soured because President Park agreed to US deployment of a theater missile defense system (known by the initials THAAD) in the South, which the Chinese believe is really aimed at them.
Although the US has been careful not to say anything about the current political situation in Seoul for fear of being depicted as a meddler, it should consider the virtues of having a progressive again in power in Korea. Kim Dae-jung’s so-called Sunshine Policy produced meaningful economic and social interactions between North and South. Let the South Korean people decide if they want to try those approaches again. Perhaps Trump will agree; all his top foreign policy nominees are focused on the Middle East, and Trump seems disinclined to making North Korea’s nuclear weapons a top priority. As I’ve written many times, despite all the frustrations inherent in dealing with North Korea—not least the two nuclear tests and twenty-five missile tests this year—the only realistic option is engagement via a new package deal. The fundamental US objective, one that all parties share, is to avoid another Korean war. The resumption of North-South Korean talks, and perhaps of the Six Party Talks (US-China-Russia-Japan plus the two Koreas) as well, would be a welcome departure from the current game of sanctions and military maneuvering.