March 10, 2017 9:33 pm JST
David S. Lee

Park's removal does not end South Korea's leadership void

Policy direction uncertain amid North Korean, Chinese challenges

The headline of a March 10 paper reads, "Expulsion of Park Geun-hye, People's victory." A leadership vacuum and resulting uncertain might continue even beyond a new president's inauguration in May. © Reuters

The South Korean Constitutional Court's unanimous decision to uphold the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye is historic. Yet the high-stakes political drama that has gripped the nation since allegations of cronyism and corruption between Park and long-time friend Choi Soon-sil emerged in late 2016 is not over.

South Korea's political turmoil has generated a leadership vacuum, resulting in uncertain domestic and foreign policy at an extremely inopportune moment. This uncertainty will undoubtedly continue until a new president is elected in May and may even continue if the new leader lacks a strong mandate from the people and doubts arise over whether establishment politics and business as usual will continue.

Nowhere is the lack of policy direction more apparent than in South Korea' s response to North Korea's nuclear missile program and the manner in which the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system is being deployed.

Tension on the Korean Peninsula has escalated dramatically with THAAD deployment actually creating greater near-term instability. This could conceivably drive China, which worries about THAAD's ability to monitor its own military activities, to modernize its nuclear capability and in turn force other regional actors to respond. There are also unanswered questions regarding the usefulness and effectiveness of THAAD for South Korea's defense.

With the first THAAD components delivered on an accelerated basis to South Korea this week, Chinese opposition has been vociferous. Having provided the land for THAAD's deployment, the Lotte Group is bearing the harshest impact of China's economic statecraft.

The Chinese backlash, however, has extended to tourism, aviation, entertainment, video gaming, industrial batteries and cosmetics as well. China is sending a clear message that its strategic interests outweigh any perceived economic benefit from commercial relations between the two countries. The image of Park joining Chinese President Xi Jinping on a dais in Tiananmen Square only two years ago feels like the distant past.

The ramifications of South Korea's leadership vacuum are clear. There is a lack of long-term strategic direction and instead of formulating and executing objectives, South Korea is merely reacting to China, to North Korea, and in some respects, to the administration of new U.S. President Donald Trump. The issue of THAAD deployment could have been handled much more thoughtfully, strategically and communicated much better than it was, but with a leader struggling for survival, there was a lack of direction.

North Korea's most recent provocations, including the launch of four missiles toward U.S. bases in Japan on Monday and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia last month, leave the distinct impression that Pyongyang is playing chess while Seoul is playing checkers. Efforts to resolve tensions and improve military cooperation with Japan during the waning days of Park's rule also now appear exposed to South Korea's uncertain political landscape.

In the midst of such uncertainty, it seems the only issue that has been plainly clarified is the timeline for the presidential election. With Park impeached, a snap election for a new president must be held within 60 days, meaning no later than May 9, and the victor will take office right after the results are confirmed; the country was originally slated to elect a new president in December to take office next February.

Liberal Moon Jae-in is leading in recent polls, with Park's conservatives yet to field a candidate. The next two months will likely be tumultuous with fervent campaigning, additional North Korean provocations and economic headwinds due to rising household debt and Chinese retribution over the deployment of THAAD.

Unfortunately for Park, her legal travails have not ended. She has lost presidential immunity and could face criminal prosecution over the scandal that brought her down. While the impeachment process terminated her political life, her possible criminal trial will serve as a bellwether of elite accountability and will be equally scrutinized. Additionally, Park's criminal investigation may have an impact on the upcoming presidential election as additional evidence emerges.

Park's fate is also entwined with that of Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong. His trial on charges including bribery and embezzlement related to Park and Choi opened Thursday and will serve as a further litmus test of elite accountability and of the undue influence of South Korea's conglomerates over the country. Lee has denied the charges.

Though there is a real possibility that a former president and the scion of South Korea's leading conglomerate may both be imprisoned for corruption, many remain skeptical. Many recall that 20 years ago, there was hope that the Asian Financial Crisis would catalyze the structural change necessary to decrease South Korea's reliance on its conglomerates. Those groups that survived, however, emerged from the crisis stronger.

Earlier this week, a son of the chairman of the Hanwha Group was given a suspended sentence following his conviction on assault charges, with the judge admonishing him that he was a member of the "privileged class". This embedded distinction between those privileged with power and those not is at the heart of South Korean societal angst. The issue is not that such a distinction exists, but that the role of lineage and relationships in creating such a social hierarchy are so pronounced as to feel feudal.

With unwritten chapters remaining, this moment is an important inflection point for South Korea. For this moment to not be wasted, however, the leadership vacuum in both the public and private sectors needs to be urgently filled by qualified leaders.

Perhaps for many, the most indelible memory from the last few months will be the countless throngs of peaceful protesters who assembled almost every weekend in downtown Seoul to express frustration with the status quo. These gatherings brought to mind a quote attributed to German soldiers during World War I in regard to the leadership of their British foes: "Never before have such lions been led by such lambs." South Korea has had enough lambs. Leaders are now needed to fill the void.

David S. Lee is a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong School of Business.

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