December 16, 2016 10:39 pm JST
J. Berkshire Miller

Park crisis must not distract Seoul from Tokyo detente

South Korea needs to stay focused on security imperatives amid political drama

The impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye following an influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil has left her future in the hands of Seoul's Constitutional Court, which must decide whether to uphold the impeachment vote. But the domestic political drama has distracted attention from a series of foreign policy challenges that face the country's caretaker leader, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, and Park's eventual successor as president.

The most immediate may be renewed provocation from Pyongyang.

The autocratic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been relatively quiescent during the crisis in Seoul, largely because of the North's unwillingness to bail out the embattled Park administration, which was desperate for a credible distraction from the domestic scandal. Now, with Park's future in limbo and the current government in maintenance mode, the North is likely to take advantage by testing Hwang in his caretaker role.

The second source of uncertainty is the election of Donald Trump as President-elect of the United States. Trump's election, and his sharp campaign rhetoric on U.S. engagement with allies, has stirred anxiety in the region and put into question the nature of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Trump targeted South Korea -- in addition to Japan -- as a country "not paying its fair share" for the deployment of U.S. forces, which total more than 30,000 on the Korean peninsula.

Trump has also suggested that it makes sense for Seoul -- and Tokyo -- to consider pursuing domestic nuclear weapons programs as a security guarantor against regional tensions. The Constitutional Court has 180 days to rule on the legality of Park's impeachment, which suggests that a South Korean response to North Korean provocations or U.S. policy changes may be required well before a new president is installed in Seoul.

In the shorter term, there are also concerns in Washington and Tokyo that Seoul might back out of -- or delay -- the deployment of the U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system, which Park agreed to install. Opposition parties in South Korea have argued that Park rammed through the decision to deploy THAAD, without adequate deliberations in the National Assembly. The deployment -- which has been heavily criticized by China -- is intended to add a layer of defense against the North's missile threat to South Korea.

Aside from dealing with threats from North Korea, Seoul's political upheaval also comes at an inopportune time for Japan-Korea relations. The moribund relationship between the two countries started showing signs of life after a landmark deal on the issue of World War II "comfort women" in late 2015. Security relations between Japan and South Korea were also facilitated by sustained and elevated provocations by North Korea over the past year -- marked by numerous ballistic missile tests and a nuclear test.

The political detente between Tokyo and Seoul, coupled with North Korea's bellicose behavior, lubricated stagnant security ties, leading to a trilateral missile defense exercise this year that also involved the U.S. Political consultations have increased markedly, with numerous meetings between high level diplomats and officials in Tokyo and Seoul, focused on synergizing regional deterrence efforts. Similarly, Japan and South Korea managed to navigate a conclusion to a long discussed -- but sidelined -- bilateral General Security of Military Information Sharing Agreement, which was inked in Seoul in November.

Intelligence sharing

In principle, the agreement will allow Japan and South Korea to share information and intelligence relating to North Korea's missile and weapons of mass destruction programs in real time. If it is implemented and used efficiently, the agreement will benefit both sides. Japan can share valuable intelligence through its unique satellite imaging capabilities, while Seoul can open a channel to Tokyo to share direct intelligence from the Korean peninsula collected by its extensive human intelligence assets.

The bilateral GSOMIA effectively replaces a caretaker trilateral agreement put in place by the U.S., Japan and South Korea in late 2015. However, while most South Koreans acknowledge the need to cooperate on security issues, there is a very real possibility that increased security ties with Japan will be used as a political football by the next administration in Seoul.

As the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh put it in an editorial: "The hasty handling of the renewed GSOMIA push, which came amid an ongoing scandal involving Park and confidante Choi Soon-sil, is hard to explain except as Park throwing her weight around. Not only have many sources reported the decision was made on orders from President Park, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has attempted to distance itself from the proceedings and keep its role in the GSOMIA signing to a minimum."

The likely identity of Park's successor remains unclear, but no matter who the replacement is South Korea needs to protect its ability to push ahead with a security-focused agenda involving Japan. This is problematic because the GSOMIA deal is a baseline agreement that would ideally be followed by more detailed arrangements in other essential areas of cooperation. These should include a Cross Servicing and Acquisitions Agreement -- which would allow the countries to use each other's territory for logistical and military support operations -- and a regularized commitment for joint operations between the countries' navies.

Meanwhile, the political turmoil in Seoul is already having a real impact on the geopolitics of the region. For example, South Korea, Japan and China were slated to hold a trilateral summit in Tokyo in late December, but the prospects for that summit now appear dim as a result of the uncertain political situation in South Korea, and Park's ouster.

The summit -- which was held for the first time in four years in 2015 -- would have brought Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Tokyo for the first time since Japan purchased three of the disputed Senkaku islands in September 2012. The trilateral nature of the summit would have provided crucial diplomatic camouflage for Beijing, which wants to talk to Tokyo, but does not want to appear willing to engage openly with Japan on a bilateral basis -- and especially not on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's home turf.

The Park-Choi spectacle has provided a riveting domestic drama in Seoul, which has yet to conclude. But South Korea's political crisis is having wide-ranging impacts on the region that transcend Seoul's credibility. For the sake of East Asia as a whole it is critical that South Korea remains engaged and aware on the foreign and security landscape as it handles the slow transition to a new leadership.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a senior fellow specializing in East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution, in New York.

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