South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who was already a lame duck before an influence-peddling scandal crippled her government, has been stripped of legitimacy among the Korean public and abroad. Sitting as the least popular president in her country’s history, with over one million protesting for her ouster, she has been hiding out, holding no public events since November 10. The very real threat of impeachment in her final year of office will be put to vote in parliament by early next month as a majority of lawmakers believe it is the only acceptable option left to correct the ship.
The acting president, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, has been taking her place at events such as last weekend’s APEC summit, which brought together regional heads of state. Park’s absence was palpable, with her stand-in powerless to build meaningful relationships. At a time when the diplomatic world is bracing for a shift ahead of the incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington, South Korea’s presidential Blue House is paralyzed.
“This scandal will certainly undermine the popularity of Park Geun-hye … and of course her legitimacy,” says Kim Jae-chun, a political science professor at Sogang University in Seoul. “She doesn’t have any mandate to lead this country, in which case foreign leaders would not think of her as a legitimate counterpart of their foreign relations.”
But is the domestic scandal bringing South Korean diplomacy to its knees? On some points, local political experts think the question is moot.
“I don’t put a lot of stock in big international meetings like APEC,” says Robert Kelly of Pusan National University. “What really matters is whether she can lead a response to a North Korean provocation if 2 percent of the Korean population is on the streets protesting her.”
North Korea is believed to time its provocations, such as missile launches, to influence South Korean politics, Kelly says, noting that blustering during the regular U.S.-South Korea military drills next year is predictable. In the event of such saber-rattling, Park’s ability to command authority is unclear.
Yet the question mark over the United States’ possible shifts on North Korea and Japan under a future President Trump may take the ball out of South Korea’s court, temporarily buffering the scandal’s damage to Seoul’s power in foreign relations. A provocation right now would be an ill-timed strategy for Pyongyang, which is sizing up the possibility of dialogue with the incoming Trump administration. A show of force from the North could even rally support around Park for crisis management, which would work against Pyongyang’s desires.
“There’s a chance that North Korea may attempt to exploit the unstable situation in South Korea, but at the same time North Korea needs to engage in this time to explore what Donald Trump will do with regard to North Korea policy,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies in Seoul. “Provocations by North Korea may undermine the chance for meaningful negotiations to take place between Washington and Pyongyang.”
Indeed, the glut of provocations — Pyongyang has tested its Musudan missile eight times this year — has largely desensitized its foes. North Korean officials have had exploratory talks with U.S. representatives including 38 North’s Joel Wit and Brookings Institution fellow Robert Einhorn now that Washington may be warmer to dialogue than the outgoing incumbent Barack Obama, Bong added.
Further, unlike other ministries, the Ministry of Defense still works under the direction of Blue House. “There would be no delay in the military response to North Korea’s provocative actions,” notes Choi Lyong, a political science professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
Ironically, the precarious U.S.-North Korea relationship may be shielding South Korea from an attack. But those short-term benefits don’t negate the larger possibility that Seoul could be losing out on fortifying its relationship with Washington, particularly when it comes to building trilateral ties with both the United States and Japan.
Trump’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shortly after his election victory has signaled that Japan will remain a cornerstone of the United States’ “rebalance to Asia.” Yet South Korea’s role in the U.S. Asia strategy could be weakening. Trump’s early forging of ties with Abe could signal that Washington may increasingly lean on Tokyo in the coming years, notes Choi. Last year’s comfort women agreement paired with the controversial military information sharing deal are examples of Seoul making yields to Japan.
But some suggest Seoul may have little to gain from preemptively forging ties with Trump. There is precedent not to be too eager to jump the gun on talks with the new U.S. president, notes Bong. Before then-President-elect George W. Bush’s swearing-in, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung pushed for a meeting to persuade the incoming leader of the importance of Kim’s Sunshine Policy, which increased engagement with Pyongyang. But his persuasions were largely ineffective; the suspicious Bush was dismayed and adopted a hardline stance on Pyongyang that has frosted ties to this day.
“Sometimes nothing at all may be the better choice when you’re not really prepared to deal with the other side,” notes Bong. “And President Park is far from being prepared to deliver what would constitute the core elements of South Korea’s policy of North Korea.”
Meanwhile, Park pushing for the immediate signing Wednesday of the controversial General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan could be a double-edged sword.
Some see the move as Park pulling rank, demonstrating that she will not back down from control over critical foreign policy issues. Her domestic political motivation for pushing the bill, which is controversial both among the public and in China, could readily backfire if an opposition leader takes power, adds Kim. But it may have also been ideal to carry out a controversial deal on the side while criticism is squarely focused on the Choi scandal.
“Paradoxically speaking, it’s a good time to carry out the signing of GSOMIA,” says Bong. “Although there’s huge criticism about signing it, compared to public attention on the scandal, this is small potatoes.”
But other items such as decisions on all-important trade bills, particularly as South Korea’s growth stagnates, will reach a point that can no longer be put off. The normally uncontroversial ratification of a Central American Free Trade Agreement, which is nearing completion, now hangs in the balance as the opposition will fend off any business-as-usual that would legitimize the Park government, Kelly says. And Trump, who has criticized the “job-killing” Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, could require careful dialogue.
Choi urges that no meaningful developments in U.S.-Korea defense policy can be made until the Blue House is swept clean. “It is not too late for South Korea to follow up the new order under the unexpected new president in the White House,” he says. “But we do not have much time to waste: South Korean leadership must quickly prepare for the upcoming discussion on the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea and expenses for their stationing.”
Clear foreign policies must be made to rectify South Korea’s bruised reputation abroad, he adds.
“It will take a long time for South Korea to recover its credit in international relations,” Choi says. “The best possible solution would be to stabilize South Korea’s diplomacy, which continuously swings between the U.S. and China, with a consistent policy and a clear orientation.”