March 23, 2017 10:00 am JST

David S. Lee: South Korea faces vacuum with Park Geun-hye's ouster

An election to replace the ex-president lies ahead, but which way the country will go is anyone's guess

The South Korean Constitutional Court's unanimous decision to uphold the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye was 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 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 and could conceivably drive China, which worries about the system's ability to monitor its own military activities, to modernize its nuclear capability and in turn force other regional actors to respond.

With the first THAAD components starting to arrive in South Korea, 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, but the backlash has extended to tourism, aviation, entertainment, video gaming, industrial batteries and cosmetics. China is sending a clear message that its strategic interests outweigh any perceived economic benefit from commercial relations between the two countries.

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 and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, 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.

Liberal Moon Jae-in is leading in recent polls for the snap May 9 presidential election, with Park's conservatives yet to field a candidate. The 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.

There is now a real possibility that both Park and Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong may be imprisoned for corruption, though both deny wrongdoing. Lee's trial on charges including bribery and embezzlement related to Park and Choi will serve as a further litmus test of elite accountability and of the undue influence of South Korea's conglomerates over the country.

Many Koreans remain skeptical, recalling that there was hope the Asian financial crisis would catalyze structural change to decrease South Korea's reliance on its conglomerates. Those groups that survived, however, emerged from the crisis stronger.

On March 8, 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.

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

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