December 12, 2016 | By Karl Friedhoff

South Korea: Stepping Toward the Wilderness?

Add another piece of uncertainty into the global blender: South Korea is now effectively leaderless after its president was impeached, a turn that could portend serious consequences both for US foreign policy in Northeast Asia and for Korea’s relations with the United States and Japan. The degree of impact will largely depend on who manages to grab the Blue House in the next presidential election. A victory for the opposition party—the first time in ten years an opposition politician would hold the post—clearly carries the most risk.

President Park Geun-Hye was impeached by the National Assembly this past Friday, December 9, removing her from office for now—and perhaps permanently. The Constitutional Court now has 180 days to decide if impeachment will stand—during which time the sitting prime minister becomes the acting president. If impeachment stands, a snap election is to be held in 60 days. Alternatively, the Constitutional Court could decide that the evidence—while unflattering and unsavory—falls short of any impeachable offense. In that case, President Park could return to office, but given she is facing a 4 percent approval rate and mass weekly protests in the streets, she is unlikely to see her term through to its February 2018 end. The snap election seems to be the most likely outcome.

The opposition party—led by Mr. Moon Jae-In—stands a fair chance of capturing the Blue House, especially considering its surprising performance in the most recent general election. If that happens, it may very well bring a sea change in South Korea’s foreign policy. Nowhere will that be more obvious than on North Korea.

Since 2008, South Korean policy on North Korea has focused on punishing the Kim Jong Un regime for its nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses. Sanctions and the halt of all economic engagement was the order of the day. This will reverse under opposition leadership. A revival of the Sunshine Policy will see economic engagement increase, and a summit between the South Korean president and Kim Jong Un would likely be high on the agenda. Therein lies the rub. This would put South Korea out of step with both the United States and Japan and more in line with China’s preferred approach.

This would create consternation in Washington. There are strong signals that the incoming Trump administration intends to take a harder line on China policy. If that is the case, those in the administration will likely not appreciate a US ally moving closer to China, especially on a key issue such as North Korea. In fact, this concern has manifested previously. A key goal of the Park administration was to improve relations with China in hopes of spurring a Chinese re-think on its North Korea policy. Not only did the re-think never come, but some in Washington openly worried about South Korea tilting toward China and away from the United States. These fears will be revived and lay the foundation for sustained tension in the US-Korea alliance.

This tension would likely be exacerbated by a mismatch in presidential personalities and goals. The last time the opposition party was in power—under President Roh Moo-Hyun—relations with the United States hit their lowest point in decades. Anti-American sentiment was high throughout his tenure, sometimes enflamed by Mr. Roh himself, but the relationship since then has climbed to its strongest point ever. In public opinion polls, support for the US-Korea alliance often tops 90 percent. But the favorability of the US president can also shape views of the alliance. While those charged with alliance management in both countries are incredibly capable, it is no coincidence that strong support for the alliance with the United States coincided with President Obama’s tenure. In opinion polls, he was the most favored leader in the region. In recent meetings in Seoul, South Korean government officials were concerned about the scenario in which Donald Trump would follow through on his threat to demand a steep increase in South Korea’s financial contribution to the stationing of US troops in the country and its effect on public sentiment. While such a move may not spark a return to early-2000 levels of dissatisfaction with the US-Korea alliance, it would begin to erode the robust support it currently enjoys. In South Korea, public opinion can shift quickly, and a negative feedback cycle is an all-too-possible outcome.

With Japan, the situation is much more precarious. The December 28, 2015 deal on comfort women between the two countries has held thus far, but the opposition party has voiced its opposition. If this deal were to be scrapped it would have disastrous consequences for the Korea-Japan relationship. In meetings in Tokyo, Japanese officials privately expressed high levels of frustration and varying degrees of mistrust of South Korea. All sides continue to hope that the deal holds, but if South Korea walks away it could mean an end to the modest cooperation that the countries quietly undertake. Convincing the Japanese public and Japanese officials that the relationship is salvageable will be a difficult task. This would further undermine US policy in the region, which aims to present a united front among the three countries to deter North Korea.

These outcomes are not set in stone, of course. But they do need to be seriously thought through and accounted for by officials in the United States, Japan, and especially South Korea. Risk mitigation is a key factor in policy making. A shift on North Korea policy by South Korea is a decision to be made by South Korea’s political leadership. Moreover, it need not lead to a fundamental shift in in the US-South Korea relationship. The alliance has traversed this ground before and would be enable to endure the instability this shift will produce. A unilateral scrapping of the comfort women deal, however, is the greater danger. This would fundamentally rupture the Korea-Japan relationship given the unprecedented nature of the agreement and the recognition the agreement received upon its announcement. When the deal was announced, statements of support were issued around the world—including from the United States National Security Council. There will be little international support for any kind of new agreement.

Separately, each issue may prove to be manageable. But if these two decisions are taken together, they may very well be South Korea’s first steps toward the wilderness. 

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