Turmoil In South Korea: Impact On Regional Security – Analysis

Even when people in South Korea rejoice in ousting Park Geun-hye from the Blue House on account of scandal and celebrating the victory of democracy, there are concerns in some quarters inside South Korea on how this internal political turn and swift upending of the status quo is going to shape South Korea’s ties with its neighbour Japan. Both suffer from historical irritants which do not easily go away. More recently, the installation of a Comfort Woman statue in front of the Japan consulate in Busan and earlier in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul flared up bilateral tensions. Revision of textbooks and visits to Yasukuni shrine by political leaders in Japan also inflame feelings. Both at the same time face serious threats from North Korea.

Being allies of the US, both Japan and South Korea seek compelling reason to look for a common approach to deal with the North Korean threat. The on-going US-South Korea joint military drills and the decision to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a state-of-the-art missile defense system, are seen as provocations by Pyongyang. The firing of four missiles by Pyongyang, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone was a reactionary measure that rattled Japan. China’s proposal – suspension-for-suspension proposal – joint military drills and Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs – have no buyer and mere will-o-the-wisp. In the midst of all these fast changing events, the political turbulence in South Korea injects further uncertainties.

The question that arises: how South Korean politics is going to impact its ties with Japan and how both countries can coordinate to arrive at a common stance to cope with the North Korean challenge? This is because, South Korea shall be in election mode now for the next 60 days because according to its constitution a new President has to be elected and move to the Blue House before 9 May.

Having lost all privileges, Park now could face criminal charges and possibly a term in prison. Democracy having triumphed, the new president has to put the house in order and restore the primacy associated with the Blue House. A conciliatory move towards North Korea, a la Sunshine policy, could be envisioned. But one thing stands out from all these turbulent waves, the swift unbending of the status quo has shaken the country’s foundations, leaving the people stunned.

But the difficult part that remains to be answered how far such turbulent times be converted into lasting progress for the country, the primacy of which ought to rest in good-neighbourliness with Japan and China. With ties with China turning sour over the THAAD deployment issue, exposing its economic relations into uncertain future, the question that arises is, can South Korea afford to derail ties with Japan, a common ally with the US?. The new president is expected to urgently address such sensitive issue as it impinges on national security because of real common North Korean threat.

Korea has a bitter historical relation with Japan and carries the baggage of history. The exploitation during the 35 years of colonial rule by Japan from 1910 to 1945 has left a scar that remains to be healed. Yet, the country passed through repressive rules after the Korean War until 1987 during which it experienced economic miracle, which eventually was a precursor to uprisings clamouring for democracy, and eventually leapfrogging to be a vibrant economic and middle power. This could not have been possible without Japan’s cooperation. The new president ought to persevere not to derail this previous experience.

Domestically, having reaped the fruits of peaceful protests against a corrupt President, an energised citizenry ought to maintain united to prevent the reoccurrence of similar incidents. For South Korea, this is another critical moment. It has withered similar storm in the past and is likely to cope with another if occurs. The corruption scandal was the reason to unify the populace. The new challenge is how to sustain the energy which can be used for constructive purposes. A restive population could run risk of denting the efforts of the new president to bring in corporate reforms if expectations remain high than the delivery time.

Dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and weapon development programme would be the biggest foreign policy challenge for the new president. Cooperating with Japan needs to get primacy. The liberal party’s presidential favourite Moon Jae-in who had lost to Park in 2012 election and was an aide in the 2000s to late liberal President Roh Moo Hyun is expected to revive the Sunshine Policy introduced by president Roh, if elected as the new president. His elevation to the Blue House could be a turnaround in the geopolitics of the region.

Then liberal President Roh Moo Hyun’s Sunshine Policy pursued a policy of rapprochement towards North Korea which included boosting trade and cultural exchanges. Opinions inside the country were divided, with some criticising while others extending support. When the conservatives returned to power, this peacenik approach was scrapped because North Korea continued to expand its nuclear weapons and missiles programs while reaping benefits of cooperation with South Korea. If Moon becomes the next president, one can expect return to Roh’s engagement strategy with the North, including reopening the Kaesong industrial park in the North, close to the 38th parallel De-militarised Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom that divided the two, which was jointly run by both before Park closed in 2016 following a nuclear test and long-range launch by Pyongyang.

Such a decision can be delicate as some section within the South Korean political establishment would argue as violation of international sanctions against the North to which the South is a party. It remains unknown how the US and Japan would react if the Moon government adopts such an approach. It would also remain unclear if the distrust that Pyongyang attracts from most countries will be diminished if Moon pursues a policy of accommodation and not punishment. Given the extreme volatility in South Korean politics, the new president needs a strong mandate to deal with the North which will be in South Korea’s long-tern national interest. Persuading the US and Japan to support would be another tricky issue. What happens to the future of the US-South Korea joint military drills shall have no ready answer.

Given that Moon as the likely next President and adopts a conciliatory approach towards the North, would Pyongyang respond positively with open arms without surrendering or compromising any of its state policy? Will carrot work if stick has thus far failed? That too remains unknown. There could be several possibilities. But at the moment, the answer is both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’.

Irrespective of what the policy of the new president of South Korea would be, Park’s impeachment has added a new dimension to the alarming situation given the rising military threat emanating from Pyongyang remains unstoppable. It would be unfortunate if such a situation is allowed to impact on relations between Japan and South Korea, given that both have a host of mutual interests to protect and defend.

With the much touted “Second Miracle of Han River” claim by Park being consigned to dustbin of history with her ousting, the new president would also find tough if he decided to revisit the THAAD deployment decision in the country’s soil. Being vehemently opposed to this, China has already resorted to retaliatory economic measures against South Korean companies, prominently the Lotte group for land swap deal, and attacking the tourism economy. Thus far, the South Korean economy is heavily dependent on exports to China, led by conglomerates. The slowdown in the Chinese economy, resulting in a sluggish growth rate, had already hit a snag. Now the retaliatory measures by China against Korean products would hurt, and hurt both. It would leave its impact on the employment situation, affecting the youth, thereby breeding cause for discontentment.

Park had chosen to develop closer relations with China with the hope that Beijing would exercise its influence to deter Pyongyang from pursuing its nuclear and missile programs. She even chose to travel to Beijing in September 2015 to participate in the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of China’s “victory” in the War of Resistance against Japan. Not only she miscalculated as Beijing either was unable to rein Pyongyang or was unwilling to put pressure, the THAAD deployment decision that angered Beijing followed by retaliatory economic measures is a new situation that the new president has to deal with. So the challenges are huge for the Moon (hopefully) presidency.

Given the past experience, the North Korea is unlikely to change. That would mean cooperation, consultation and coordination of policies between the US, Japan and South Korea, even during the period of political transition in Seoul must continue. That would mean no revisiting on THAAD deployment despite pressure from Beijing.

Park not only misread Beijing, she unnecessarily annoyed Tokyo by adopting a rigid stance on the comfort women issue. For over two and half years, she was not even on talking terms with Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, until then President Barack Obama brought both to a common table. That too lacked warmth, with Park avoiding Abe and looking another way. Japan was so dismayed that it was compelled to temporarily pull out its ambassador in Seoul and Consulate General in Busan. Both are yet to return. The new president would see compelling reason to restore normalcy and facilitate return of the two diplomats to resume their duties. Starting with Chun Doo Hwan, Park was the only South Korean president who never visited Japan while in office. The new president ought to change the present course of ties in the larger interest of region’s security. The challenges are no longer bilateral but regional and in that perspective leaders should craft their nations’ foreign policies. Japan shall be happy to respond positively if South Korea makes any peace overtures by taking the first step.

*Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either of the ICCR or the Government of India.

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Professor Rajaram Panda, an eminent expert on the security and strategic issues of the Asia-Pacific, is currently ICCR Chair on Indian Studies Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. E-mail: [email protected]

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