Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, dispensing pledges like a jolly Santa Claus pulling Christmas presents from his sled, arrives today (Friday) in Seoul from Tokyo and flies the following day to Beijing. After vowing undying U.S. support to Korea and Japan, he’ll assure China that THAAD presents no threat and beg the Chinese to get their North Korean friends to abandon their nuclear program.
Tillerson may mean well, but his mission arouses skepticism for reasons that have nothing to do with his undoubted sincerity. Fact is, Tillerson does not have much influence over President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. That power has devolved to a tight circle in the White House, including son-in-law Jared Kushner. That’s too bad considering Koreans vote in less than two months for a new president after a campaign revolving around the South’s alliance with the U.S. from the dark days of the Korean War.
Just what Tillerson can accomplish in Seoul is all the more doubtful given the impending power shift. It’s highly unlikely any of those whom he’s seeing, including acting President Hwang Kyo-Anh and Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se, will be around beyond the special election in early May for a new president to succeed the ousted Park Geun-Hye. Hwang and Yun, graciously receiving Tillerson, have to talk up the historic Korean-American alliance, along with U.N. sanctions, in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s determination to test a ballistic missile capable of carrying a warhead to a distant target. Their kind words, however, will blow away in gusts of hot air after a new president moves into the Blue House.
As South Korea enters an uncertain era, memories of the “candlelight vigils” in central Seoul will fade into history. Koreans may pride themselves on a legal process that began with the arrest of Park’s close friend and then her impeachment by the National Assembly as approved by the country’s Constitutional Court, but conservatives, waving Korean and sometimes American flags, breathe defiance.
The left-right struggle tests the durability of democracy three decades after equally intense protests led to adoption of a “democracy constitution” that ended military dictatorship. Many of Park’s advocates look back fondly on the role of her father, Park Chung-Hee, who ruled Korea with an iron hand for 18 years and 5 months before his assassination in 1979. He may have been a dictator, they say, but he oversaw modern Korea’s rise as an industrial power.
The prospect of a leftist taking over raises the question of how to defend against a North Korean regime eager to exploit the right-left rift in South Korean life.
THAAD, Terminal High Altitude Missile Defense, the system for shooting down enemy missiles as high as 150 kilometers above the earth, is a gnawing bone of contention.
Liberal aspirants for the presidency strongly oppose implanting a THAAD battery on a golf course south of Seoul owned by Lotte. Foes of the U.S.-Korean alliance are eager to demonstrate against THAAD in front of the American Embassy on the avenue now best known for their candlelight vigils.
Unlike most of the conservatives still in charge of the government, liberal reformers wish to revive the Sunshine Policy, initiated by Kim Dae-Jung after his inauguration as president in 1998 and maintained by his successor, Roh Moo-Hyun, when the alliance was sorely strained. We may expect similar strains amid controversy over THAAD, sanctions and much else if a liberal again becomes president.
Inevitably, China will go on asserting its influence, punishing the South for THAAD by curbing imports, investment and cultural contacts.
Reformist complaints, of course, go far beyond THAAD. Foremost among them is domination of the economy by chaebol or conglomerates, depriving innovative entrepreneurs from competing. Liberals decry the corrupted bond between chaebol and government and applaud the trial of Lee Jae-Yong, de facto chief of the Samsung empire, in jail fighting charges of bribery in the scandal that still ensnares Park, her aides and, yes, her confidante, Choi Soon-Sil.
Passions are running high. Park’s critics, savoring her fall, face severe opposition from an older generation with memories of the Korean War and its aftermath of hardship.
In the cacophony, American diplomats, longing for the days when they got along quite well with Park, will have to summon all their negotiating skills in the struggle to keep the alliance intact against rising threats from north of the Demilitarized Zone.
Donald Kirk has been covering crises in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdn4343@gmailcom.