Foreign Policy Implications of Park’s Impeachment

By | December 09, 2016 | No Comments

South Korean President Park Geun-hye with Chinese President Xi Jinping after a joint press conference in June, 2013. | Image: Wikicommons

South Korea’s legislature has determined that an influence-peddling and corruption scandal warrants the president’s removal from office. On December 9, 2016 the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of impeaching embattled president Park Geun-hye, 234 votes “Yea” to a meagre 56 “Nay.” What happens next is for the nine justices of the Constitutional Court to decide.

Much attention will be devoted to the domestic political repercussions of impeachment, but what are the implications for South Korea’s foreign policy? Drawing from his recent research, Dr. Leif-Eric Easley considers the ramifications of Park’s impeachment for the regional order and likely foreign policy scenarios should the Court rule to have the president removed. 

Dr. Easley is assistant professor at Ewha Womans University and a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. He recently published on the role of norms in Chinese foreign policy toward North Korea and the trajectory of Japan’s security policies in East Asia. The analysis below draws from his article, “Kaesong and THAAD: South Korea’s Decisions to Counter the North,” that appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of World Affairs— Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Foreign Policy Implications of Park’s Impeachment 

by Leif-Eric Easley

South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s recent impeachment suspends her role in state affairs. The Constitutional Court has six months to deliberate on the case for impeachment, but will be under public pressure to make its decision sooner.  If the court decides to remove Park from office, then an election for a new president should be held within 60 days. In the meantime, South Korea’s political crisis enters a new phase as Hwang Kyo-ahn — the prime minister Park tried but failed to replace — takes over state affairs.

As acting president, Hwang’s duty is to provide a steady hand through the political process, not to pursue new policies. Nonetheless, South Korea’s domestic uncertainty is already spilling over into foreign policy. A Korea-Japan-China summit due to be held in Tokyo in December is unlikely to occur. The annual trilateral meeting is important for cooperation in Northeast Asia, but failed to convene in 2013 and 2014 because of frictions over territorial and historical issues. Japanese officials are concerned such frictions could return with the next South Korean government and impede bilateral cooperation on a currency swap arrangement, a recently signed intelligence sharing agreement, and a December 2015 understanding on historical reconciliation.

Even greater uncertainty surrounds Seoul’s policy on North Korea. It is unclear whether the North Korean leadership will look to test the South Korean government with a nuclear or missile test, or a provocation along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) or in the West Sea. North Korea’s weapons testing timeline is primarily driven by its ambitions to increase military capabilities, and recent tests give its scientists and engineers much technical data to work with. So Pyongyang may wait to see if a pro-engagement politician emerges from South Korea’s political tumult.

If a progressive leader replaces Park, that will not change the United Nations sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, recently expanded by Security Council Resolution 2321. However, a new South Korean administration may look for a diplomatic opening with Pyongyang, as well as a different approach on countering the North’s missile threat. In particular, two Park administration decisions may be scrutinized: the closure of the inter-Korean industrial park at Kaesong, and the plan to deploy a US missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD).

A recent article published in World Affairs examines how the Kaesong and THAAD decisions may have been the right calls at the wrong time, with the appearance of being made for the wrong reasons. Both decisions should have been more credibly presented as products of South Korean national interests, so as not to be mistaken as a function of political expediency or diplomatic signaling. But this does not mean that either decision should be reversed.

Kaesong would be very difficult to reopen if its previous practices violate new UN resolutions. A somehow reorganized industrial complex, perhaps with wages going directly to workers, would face North Korean demands for more preferential terms of operation. It would be costly to address the skills erosion of North Korean workers, damaged and appropriated equipment, and increased political risk. Most costly of all would be the demonstrated inconsistency of South Korean strategy toward North Korea, providing evidence that Pyongyang can wait out one government and exploit the next for a better deal.

Meanwhile, if Seoul backtracked on the THAAD decision, it would send unintended signals to Washington and Beijing. The incoming Trump administration would likely infer that South Korea is not adequately committed to alliance cooperation or its own defense. Chinese leaders would likely read the reversal as confirmation that their economic and diplomatic pressure against THAAD was effective. Not only would this seriously damage Seoul’s middle power credentials, it would set up unhelpful expectations in Beijing about shaping future South Korean foreign policies according to Chinese preferences.

Rather than reversing the Kaesong and THAAD decisions, South Korean interests would be better served by carefully studying how to increase economic and diplomatic leverage over the North, while taking all measures necessary to defend against a growing military threat. A South Korean government with a new mandate should be able to persuade Beijing to turn the page on THAAD, continue cooperation with Tokyo, demonstrate that the US alliance remains strong, and build upon existing policies to engage North Korea.

Correction: The introduction to this article originally stated there were 45 “Nay” votes; there were 56.