As of March 10, 2017, the South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached after it was discovered a citizen with no government post, Choi Soon-sil, was acting as a “shadow president” with significant influence over Park, undergoing executive decision making and even was extorting government money. In addition, other individuals, including Lee Jae-yong, heir to the Samsung empire was arrested for bribery and embezzlement of funds in exchange for political favors from Choi and Park. Although this scandal was revealed in October of 2016, the unanimous Constitutional Court decision to uphold Park’s impeachment is making huge changes now on South Korea. For one, South Korea is currently left without an elected president as Hwang Kyo-Ahn has taken over as the acting president. But, more importantly, South Korean political parties are gearing up for the next presidential election, which is expected to be held on May 9, 2017.
The current power vacuum left by ex-President Park has substantially changed the political landscape in South Korea. Park’s ruling conservative party, the Saenuri Party, has since split into two factions, the Barun party, which opposes Park, and the Korea Freedom Party, which still supports Park. Part of this split is because there is no sole leader, and hopes of finding one dissolved when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, predicted to be the frontrunner of the upcoming elections and unofficial leader of the Saenuri Party, dropped out of the presidential race in early February. The split of the Saenuri Party will cause a huge loss of power for the conservative party and for their candidates; on the other hand, this also allows the liberal party, which has not been in control of the government for many years, to regain power in South Korea.
The liberal Democratic Party has been given the opportunity to return to power in the coming election, which CNN calls a “campaign frenzy,” given just a 60-day period between impeachment and election. A Gallup Korea poll shows Moon Jae-in as the front runner for the Democratic candidate with 32% of the people polled supporting him, 15% ahead of the next highest candidate. Reuters predicts Moon to become the next president of South Korea, although his leadership is yet to be determined given his four other potential Democratic candidates. The existing situation in South Korea all but points to the liberal party taking control of the government from the conservative party.
If Moon Jae-in and the liberal party does win the presidential election, which is the most likely scenario, South Korea will certainly push for new developments in the Asian-Pacific world. One issue addressed will be the current U.S.-South Korean relationship. The U.S. developed plans in the summer of 2016 to place Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles in South Korea as a defense mechanism against potential threats in Asia. This plan was signed and agreed to by ex-President Park, and was moved forward by interim President Hwang. However, many Democratic candidates, Moon included, are opposed to this plan and are critical of the recently strong U.S.-South Korean relationship developed under the conservative rule, saying that the U.S. intention to deploy THAAD missiles should not be trusted. This could put a large dent in the relationship between South Korea and one of its greatest allies of late, the United States. On the other hand, liberals in power could foster greater relationships with closer, Asian allies – both China and Russia have strongly opposed U.S. THAAD missiles, citing great security threats. The Chinese-South Korean relationship stands to heavily benefit from a liberal president, as South Korean liberals are heavily critical of U.S. involvement in South Korea, but much more welcoming to a Chinese presence.
In addition, a liberal win in South Korea could lead to faster peace between South and North Korea. Presidential-hopeful Moon has made fostering friendly relationships with North Korea a centerpiece of his campaign, something that liberals have historically supported during their last power regime between 1998-2008. During this time, South Korean enacted Sunshine Policies, designed to fix relationships between North and South Korea through openness, aid, and trust. Part of Moon’s plan to tend this relationship is to reopen the joint-venture factory in Kaesong between the two countries, which was closed by ex-President Park following North Korean nuclear missile tests. While this would certainly benefit South Korea’s diplomacy and creating better relationships with North Korea, it would set back the UN’s plan to force North Korea to stop its nuclear tests, as scholars have called this proposed move, “a major step backward for taming Pyongyang.” This would set back the U.S. and many UN nations’ plan to force North Korea away from nuclear testing via stronger sanctions.
While the UN and the U.S. have become wearier and more aggressive against North Korean nuclear tests, a changing political landscape in South Korean may not bode well for these plans. Liberal leaders in South Korea have a history of becoming more friendly towards North Koreans, and Moon states he wants to do the same. The next South Korean president will have a difficult job, balancing relations between the U.S., China, and North Korea. In addition to these international affairs, the next South Korean president will also have the job in mending domestic trust within the government following the presidential impeachment. Given the state of turmoil the conservative party in South Korea is in, the stage is nearly set for Liberals to assume power in South Korea’s government under the likely Moon presidency, which is something that is sure to have large impacts on international relationships.