South Korea’s political impasse will hamper its ability to cope with pressing economic and security challenges, likely until well after the next presidential election.
The country’s policy incoherence and dividing ideology could lead to a shift — or complete change — in Seoul’s strategic initiatives under the next administration.
A potential policy orientation that would seek to end efforts to warm ties between Japan and South Korea has raised concerns in Tokyo, which sees an improved relationship under the US-led alliance structure as a key to its growing role in the region.
The political chaos that has often enveloped South Korea at the end of a presidential term has been made more pronounced this time with the impeachment Dec. 9 of President Park Geun Hye. Instead of introducing stability to the country, which has been racked by the influence-peddling scandal ensnaring the president, the leadership vacuum created by her impeachment has deepened political fractures, intensified regional divisions and increased uncertainty about Seoul’s future policy direction. This has thrown into question South Korea’s role in the region’s evolving economic and security environments and caused some of its neighbors to reassess their approach to the country.
South Korea’s Fluid Position
Declining Chinese demand for its exports and the continuing global economic slowdown are continuing to hammer South Korea’s economy, Asia’s fourth-largest. In addition, the business and political fallout from difficulties at some of the country’s top family-owned business conglomerates (including Samsung’s smartphone recall and Hanjin’s bankruptcy) combined with faltering private consumption — two linchpins of the South Korean economy — have increased the country’s negative economic outlook. These difficulties challenging South Korea’s economic resilience will be compounded by rising uncertainties about the future of global free trade, growing regional and global protectionism, and the process of domestic corporate restructuring.
Targeted import restrictions levied by China in response to Seoul’s agreement to allow the deployment of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems in the country added yet another, if limited, layer to South Korea’s economic woes. Beijing’s shot across Seoul’s bow illustrates the constraints on South Korea as it tries to cope with a shifting regional security environment. Despite US reassurances that the THAAD deployment comes in response to the growing capabilities of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, Beijing sees it as a challenge to its security. Despite the addition of the US anti-missile systems, uncertainty in South Korea regarding the continuing commitment of the United States to their security partnership continues to linger even after repeated reassurances by the incoming presidential administration. Further pressures on the Korean Peninsula are the result of its century-old geopolitical curse and blessing of being caught between China and Japan. As the military and economic might of its neighbors swells, it creates opportunities and further risks to South Korea’s attempts to balance its relations between its powerful neighbors.
Early in her presidency, Park sought to address some of South Korea’s immediate economic and security concerns by seeking closer relations with China while maintaining robust military and diplomatic cooperation with the United States as both a way to counter North Korea and to build up its defenses. But Beijing proved unwilling to rein in North Korea’s provocations, so Seoul shifted toward strengthening defense ties with Washington and forging a more aggressive and pre-emptive military strategy. It also adopted harsher policies against North Korea, including escalating sanctions and the closure of a joint industrial park in North Korea’s Kaesong Industrial Complex — the last vestige of inter-Korean cooperation.
In addition, somewhat reminiscent of her father, former President Park Chung Hee, Park Geun Hye has led the country on a cautious path toward reconciling wartime grievances with Japan. While the public still holds great animosity toward its former occupier, her policies have helped warm relations with a leading economic power and strong US ally at its doorstep, and, more important, deepened trilateral ties under the Washington-led alliance structure. And while relations between Seoul and Beijing have fallen to an all-time low under Park, South Korea has sought to preserve political and economic ties with China. Both countries have continued their exchanges through bilateral and multilateral mechanisms, including one among Japan, South Korea and China.
The quest to serve as a middle power
The concept of “middle power” is both a reflection of South Korea’s peculiar geopolitical position and the philosophical center of the country’s diplomatic efforts under successive governments in modern times. Despite being the weaker power among China, Japan and Russia in their competition in Northeast Asia, Seoul has managed to hold its own despite its limited strategic space by balancing the interests of the other countries. This has allowed Seoul not only to survive and prosper but also to position itself as a key link — and sometimes decisive player — in the region’s great power game.
But even as the foundation of its middle power strategy remains unchallenged, the results of the policy initiatives that have followed have proved inconsistent at best. The direction and intensity of South Korea’s diplomatic efforts often shift in response to the fast-evolving dynamics of Northeast Asia. But constraints on its power limit its room for maneuver in the region. South Korea’s regional reach is also limited by its political system, which is designed to prevent a return to the authoritarianism dominant before the 1990s. That system relies on frequent elections and term limits to eliminate political domination, but it also creates a disruptive political environment that often contributes to policy incoherence. Furthermore, the ideological divisions between South Korea’s liberals and conservatives — often along internal geographic lines and generational divides — continue to affect South Korea’s foreign policy direction, although their effects have diminished in recent years.
Successive South Korean presidents drove swings in policy as they sought to pursue middle power status. Under Roh Moo Hyun’s administration from 2003-2008, South Korea based its regional policy on three pillars: a greater Northeast Asian economic and security community in which South Korea could play a leading role; a more independent national security and foreign policy approach that did not rely as heavily on the US security alliance; and, perhaps most prominently, a rapprochement with North Korea through high-level exchanges and increased economic assistance, building on his predecessor Kim Dae Jung’s “Sunshine Policy.” These approaches drove a stronger ideological split in South Korea’s political landscape, and the gains they brought were limited. Relations between Japan and South Korea significantly deteriorated; tensions between China and Japan increased despite some steps toward conciliation; and North Korea, which carried out its first nuclear test in 2006, strengthened its military readiness.
Roh’s successor, Lee Myung Bak (2008-13) responded to the global economic crisis with a vision of a “Global Korea” that aimed at increasing the country’s international standing. His approach contrasted sharply with his predecessor’s regional focus, and with the broader global focus, Lee returned to US-led global and regional economic and security architecture. Meanwhile, he responded to Pyongyang’s burgeoning nuclear program by implementing a less tolerant policy approach. North Korea responded to those policies, which it viewed as hostile, with provocative behavior, including the sinking of the South Korean naval ship ChonAn in 2010 and bombardment of Yeonpyeong in the same year.
The Unclear Choice in the Coming Election
In many ways, Park’s current foreign policy approach is an extension of the one charted under Lee’s conservative administration. Park’s decision to approach policies of reconciliation with Japan brought considerable skepticism and backlash from the public that centered somewhat on the reputation of her father, Park Chung Hee, who, while revered as the founder of modern industrial Korea, was reviled as a Japanese collaborator and dictator. At the same time, ideological disagreements continue to deepen over how South Korea should try to fulfill its desire for greater independence in its alliance with the United States considering the current hard-line approach Seoul is taking to North Korea. The lack of agreement creates uncertainty over the direction that South Korea’s foreign policy will take under its next president.
No matter how Park’s impeachment plays out, the soonest that elections to choose her successor will be held is during the second quarter of 2017. First, the country’s Constitutional Court must rule on the validity of the Dec. 9 impeachment vote, a decision that can take up to 180 days. Then, the election process itself will take another two months, likely pushing the vote into the second half of the year. But potential successors are already scrambling to line up support.
On the conservative side of the political spectrum, Park’s deep unpopularity has weighed down her ruling Saenuri Party, which already has undergone internal splits and suffered from defections. Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is a likely presidential candidate, but he has not yet formalized his intentions. He could join a Saenuri splinter party or even a liberal faction, further splitting the country’s conservatives.
Several figures on the liberal side are gearing up for presidential runs, and each has taken campaign positions that promise to challenge some aspects of Park’s legacy. Moon Jae In, who served as Roh’s chief of staff and ran against Park in the 2012 presidential election as the opposition Democratic Party’s candidate, is the most experienced candidate who is considering a 2017 run. His campaign based on reconsidering THAAD deployment, softening the current approach to North Korea and reversing the detente with Japan has raised skepticism that he is following in Roh’s footsteps. By and large, other liberal politicians who are considered presidential contenders, including Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae Myung and Seoul Mayor Park Won Soon, also support more engagement with North Korea and reconsideration of the THAAD agreement. One who supports the THAAD deployment, former People’s Party chief Ahn Cheol Soo, is hampered by his involvement in a kickback scandal and a split among the liberal camp.
Over recent weeks, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo Ahn, the acting president, has repeatedly stressed the importance of maintaining Park’s foreign policy and security objectives, including her hard-line stance against North Korea and efforts to mend fences with Japan. Meanwhile, he also is seeking to put the THAAD deployment on a fast track. However, he has a limited ability to achieve those goals.
The malleability of South Korea’s foreign policy means that both external environments and national sentiment will constantly affect its positions. With an election campaign brewing that could change Seoul’s approach, the region’s key powers are reassessing their positions and strategies. Tokyo, which sees US support and strengthened Japanese-South Korean relations as key pillars to its growing role, is cautiously watching South Korea’s political developments. Beijing, on the other hand, sees an opportunity to reverse the THAAD deployment, and it has been actively supporting the opposition camp in the hopes that it can secure a THAAD withdrawal and reinforce its influence in the country. Although Seoul’s eventual position has yet to be decided, the issue demonstrates how policy shifts in Northeast Asia’s middle power could tilt the balance of power in the region.