THE dramatic removal of South Korean President Park Geun-hye from power for her role in a corruption and influence peddling scandal raises concerns that the political turmoil will further blaze North Korea’s influence in the region.
A Constitutional Court decision to uphold Park’s impeachment came just days after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s coast. Park blamed “left-leaning and North Korean-sympathising” forces in South Korean society for her ouster.
The next election will be held in early May. Selecting South Korea’s next president is the most immediate task as a power vacuum is unwelcome due to North Korea’s recent actions. Progressives, and especially conservatives, have rifts to overcome to select quality candidates.
Many had wanted former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon to run as a conservative, but he dropped his bid shortly after indicating his intention to run because he was “disappointed with the selfish ways” of some politicians and complained about “fake news”, according to Reuters.
Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, who lost the 2012 elections to Park, from the opposition Democratic United Party, is leading in opinion polls. The conservatives’ upheaval and the taint of Park make it unlikely that a conservative would win the presidency this time around.
The conservative movement is defined by its anti-communist (anti-North Korea) roots and its strong stance on national security.
Conservatives often attack liberals as being soft on security and even label them “pro-North Korea” sympathisers.
Moon was the chief of staff to former president Roh Moo-hyun and a strong proponent of the “Sunshine Policy”, which aimed to improve relations between the two Koreas from 1998 to 2008.
The policy ended with the election of a conservative president who took a tough approach towards North Korea, a stance maintained by Park.
Following North Korea’s nuclear testing early last year, Park’s government accused the North of using South Korean cash from economic engagement projects to bankroll its weapons programmes.
Moon, however, has said he would like to resume engagement with North Korea and would go to Pyongyang for talks with its leader.
According to Lee Chung-min, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University: “His (Moon’s) heart will lie in fostering deeper engagement with the North and negotiating an early summit with Kim Jong-un.”
Moon calls for a “two-step” approach on North Korea, with talks leading first to “economic unification”, and ultimately “political and military unification”.
He stressed the need to “embrace and be united with” the North Korean people, but added that he could never accept its “dictatorial regime”.
He condemned the North as “cruel and ruthless” in the wake of the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the estranged half-brother of Jong-un at klia2 last month.
“There was no choice but to recognise Jong-un as a leader, a counterpart, whether we put pressure and impose sanctions on North Korea or hold dialogue,” Moon said.
The challenges for the new South Korean president include the United States-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system deployed in South Korea. Moon, like many South Korean liberals, has questioned the value of the system in the country.
Moon has indicated that he would review Park government’s agreement to host THAAD. The agreement was reached last year to protect against North Korean missiles, and the system was due to arrive in South Korea this summer.
But, in a surprise announcement, the Pentagon said the first shipment had arrived last week.
This has sparked widespread speculation that the US expected Park to be impeached and wanted to make the deployment more difficult to reverse.
Analysts say even if the progressive Moon becomes president, he will face difficulties in backtracking on THAAD and returning to the “Sunshine Policy”.
According to Lee: “Despite Moon’s inclination to oppose THAAD deployment, he will not undo it at the expense of worsening ties with Trump. As Moon begins his term in office, he would be unlikely to push against the Americans and his own people.”
The North is likely to respond better to a liberal. But, in previous attempts at the “Sunshine Policy”, the North had been uninspiring.
According to Robert E. Kelly from Pusan National University, “while South Korea was providing assistance to the North, the North kept building nuclear weapons”. Significantly, this has widened the gap between the two.
As South Koreans choose a new president in May, the consequence will affect the country’s diplomatic position, which may adopt a softer North Korean stance. However, this may complicate matters in maintaining close and sustained coordination with Japan and the new administration in Washington, which prefer a harder stance on Pyongyang.
Paridah Abd Samad, a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) fellow, is a former lecturer of UiTM, Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Gombak