By Sandip Kumar Mishra*
South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached by the National Assembly on 9 December 2016. There were thirteen charges against her; these included bribery, influence peddling, and dereliction of duty. On 10 March 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea unanimously upheld the impeachment, and sent Geun-hye to prison on 31 March.
In fact, the process of Park Geun-hye’s downfall began in October 2016, when it was reported that her old family friend, Choi Sun-sil, had access to government documents, took final decisions on government policy and appointments, and embezzled huge sums of money from Korean business houses by establishing various foundations. The widespread shock among South Koreans reflected in her popularity ratings, which reached a low of 4 per cent after these revelations.
Geun-hye’s downfall has been perceived in South Korea as a positive moment in their democratic processes. An entirely peaceful people’s movement has shown that the South Korea polity is governed by the ‘rule of law’ and that nobody is above it. In the peaceful protests that took place across South Korea over the past five months and in which more than half of the Korean population participated, there was no report of violence, destruction of public property, or rioting. The South Korean polity, which was earlier supposed to be divided between the conservative and progressive parties, appears much more cohesive than is believed – less than 20 per cent favours conservative forces.
The impeachment, apart from having consequences for domestic politics, is also going to have some important implications for South Korea’s relations with the US, China, Japan and North Korea.
One of the most important issues for the next South Korean presidential elections scheduled for 9 May 2017 is the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in the country. South Korea’s progressive parties are campaigning to review this decision. It has been alleged that Geun-hye did not allow enough public discussion on the subject and quite suddenly decided to deploy THAAD in early-2016, after North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests. In the first three years of her term, Gen-hye was keen on engaging China and had annual summit meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, 2014 and 2015. In this period, South Korea joined the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Chinese initiative, in spite of Washington’s displeasure. Earlier, it officially denied, on multiple occasions, that they were discussing THAAD with the US. It appears South Korea did not conduct a sufficient cost-benefit analysis of the situation, as China’s displeasure would have serious implications for their bilateral economic and security exchanges.
For the same reason, the US sent its first major installment of THAAD equipment to South Korea when the process of impeachment was underway. The intention was to move forward to a point of irreversibility or no return. The tactic may work, and if the process of installation moves beyond the critical phase, it will not be easy for the next South Korean president to reverse the decision even if they undertake a review.
However, despite the unlikelihood of a reversal of the decision on technical grounds, the next progressive president may try to mend relations with China, which have deteriorated in the past year and a half owing to THAAD. Over two South Korean progressive administrations, from 1998 to 2002, the country forged close ties with China in the political and strategic domains, and this might be repeated.
Geun-hye’s administration also reached a hasty ‘final deal’ with Japan in late December 2015 on the issue of comfort women. South Korea’s progressive parties have been consistently critical of this deal, and the new president in all likelihood will review it. It has been alleged that in the first three years of her presidency, Geun-hye held several South Korea-Japan bilateral exchanges hostage to the comfort women issue, and she agreed to a less-than-satisfactory deal when this started having a negative impact on South Korea. Notwithstanding domestic contestation, Japan-South Korea relations may deteriorate if the next president tries to revise or scrap the deal.
The Geun-hye administration has been criticised by the progressive parties on the issue of North Korean missile and nuclear tests as well, and her policy to engage North Korea has been deemed a failure. Although Geun-hye had initially proposed ‘trust politik’ with North Korea, inter-Korea relations and lines of communication worsened during her presidency. The next president may have a more genuine policy of engagement that would not demand mechanical or short-term reciprocity.
Overall, the South Korean president’s impeachment will lead to a significant shift in South Korea’s foreign policy orientation with implications for East Asian regional politics.
* Sandip Kumar Mishra
Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS