Growing political crisis in South Korea could impact critical security ties with U.S.

Special to

DonKirk31By Donald Kirk

The populist revolt against President Park Geun-Hye has grave implications for governance amid economic unease and high youth unemployment.

In this uncertain transition period, Korea’s relationship with the United States is sure to undergo strains if not change while foes of her conservative pro-American policies line up in search of negotiations with North Korea after years of rising tensions.

The U.S. and South Korea are pushing to position the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense [THAAD] system on the Korean peninsula as soon as possible.
The U.S. and South Korea are working to expedite deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense [THAAD] system.
In the cacophony of voices, the pressure exerted by the parliament of the streets that brought about Park’s impeachment, pending approval by two-thirds of a Constitutional Court of nine judges, has exemplified democracy in action. The protest has been all the more remarkable in a system that’s been showing signs of reversion to dictatorship as epitomized under her long-ruling father, Park Chung-Hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.

Related: North Korean military drill targets Seoul’s presidential Blue House, December 13, 2016

The gulf between South Korean conservatives and liberals is likely to deepen while the former defend the style of leadership in place for nearly nine years since the end of a decade of liberal rule. The conservatives Lee Myung-Bak, a former Hyundai executive elected in 2007, and then Park, elected in 2012, vastly strengthened entrenched ties with the chaebol that dominate the Korean economy.

Despite ritual protestations of the need to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises as an antidote to the rigid system fostered by Park’s father, she increasingly relied on the chaebol for support. Corruption charges have exposed her ties to the chaebol, including such international names as Samsung, Hyundai and LG. They all were pressured to contribute to two foundations at the behest of the woman, her close friend for decades, now in jail facing trial along with several top aides in an expanding investigation by a special prosecutor.

In the period of conservative governance, the Korea-U.S. alliance reached new dimensions of warmth. President Obama, his secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and other high-level emissaries proclaimed the tightness of the bond. The phrase, “no daylight between us,” remains the mantra of official American visitors to Seoul whenever they talk about cooperation on many different levels, both military and commercial.

Park showed the depth of her goodwill by assenting to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), meaning installation of missile batteries capable theoretically of shooting down an incoming missile 90 miles above the Earth’s surface. A THAAD battery, developed by Lockheed Martin Space System and a galaxy of famous subcontractors for a minimal $1.25 billion, is to be installed next year at a golf course owned by Lotte, Korea’s fifth-biggest chaebol. U.S. and Korean officials are scrambling to get it there as soon as possible before Park, still President while the court is deliberating her fate and her prime minister echoes her wishes as acting president, is forced out for good and a liberal successor jettisons the idea.

Controversy over THAAD, strongly opposed by China and Russia, ranks among the most visible differences between the U.S. and Park’s foes. So far, however, the protests against Park have not been anti-American.

Demonstrators, holding up signs saying, “Park Geun-Hye, Get Out,” in white Korean lettering on a red or yellow background, have not been urging the 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea to go home. Police buses barricade the American embassy, on the main avenue leading to the Gyeongbok Palace of ancient Korean kings and the Blue House office and residential complex, but lines of marchers have ignored it.

The liberal coalition that includes the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and two minor parties has many other complaints against Park besides THAAD. They criticize her for worsening relations with North Korea, for avoiding negotiations with the North, for siding with the U.S. in a “hard line” policy that complements the “strategic patience” of the Obama administration.

Moon Jae-In, the DPK candidate whom Park defeated in 2012 by 1.2 percent of the ballots in an election in which the National Intelligence Service was accused of manipulating public opinion, opposes toughened sanctions against North Korea on which Park’s ministers have closely coordinated with the U.S.

Park’s impeachment means she can live inside her Blue House home but cannot enter the Blue House office complex now run by the acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn. Hwang is a caretaker in charge of a cabinet filled by Park appointees. Her foes have called on them to resign.

Moon would love to run again in the special election required within 60 days after the President steps downs, whether by court order or her own volition.

The atmosphere is combustible. Protesters demand Park not wait for the court to rule, as required within six months of impeachment, before vacating the Blue House.

The longer the court waits, the greater the chances for violent outbreaks. Civil unrest could be expected if the court, dominated by conservatives, rejects impeachment, enabling her to stay in office until the inauguration of a new president in February 2018 after the next regular election a year from now.

Inevitably, the protests would turn anti-American, as they have in the past. High-level U.S.-Korean rapport would evaporate still faster if President-elect Donald Trump were to follow through on his demand for South Korea to pay most of the cost of basing U.S. troops on Korean soil.

As protests mount, the army, so far aloof while fixated on North Korean threats, might intervene, ending the non-violent display of democracy and free speech. The U.S.-Korean alliance would then be the focal point of populist outrage — a nightmare scenario in a time of widespread social unrest.

Donald Kirk witnessed mass protests on the streets of Seoul in the 1970s and 1980s before adoption of the current “democracy constitution” in June 1987 and has covered every Korean presidential election since then. He’s at [email protected]