South Korea is engulfed in a month-long national crisis that has brought politics to a standstill, and the timing could not be worse for the Korean Peninsula and the region.
A president in name only
The headlines out of Seoul over the past month have been one head-scratcher after another: President Park Geun-hye has been ruling under the influence of a shamanic cult advisor; chaebol conglomerates like Samsung and Lotte have been pressured to ‘donate’ millions to advisor’s shady private foundations; and outraged Koreans are flooding the streets of Seoul in the largest demonstrations in decades to demand the besieged president resign.
Every day reports and rumors open up a new dimension to the scandal. The latest bombshells have shifted from the president’s spiritual life to her physical health. Why did the Blue House, as her office is known, make a bulk order of Viagra last December? Has the president been secretly visiting a Gangnam-style detox clinic? Does any of this explain the notorious ‘missing seven hours’, when virtually the entire country watched in horror as three hundred passengers (mostly children) died during the Sewol ferry sinking, yet the president made no public appearance?
Park herself has apologised twice for her unusual relationship to the other woman at the centre of the scandal, lifelong friend Choi Soon-sil, daughter of the president’s mentor, and cult leader, Choi Tae-min. Park’s first apology one month ago was a perfunctory 90-second statement that only fanned the flames of outrage. A week later, speaking on live TV to a room of journalists (who were not invited to ask questions), Park’s voice now quivered and her eyes moistened as she begged the people to forgive her for letting them down. She blamed her bad judgment on the demons of loneliness that she has suffered since the assassinations of both her mother and father (Park Chung-hee, Korea’s military dictator from 1961 to 1979). Watching Park’s second mea culpa, I thought perhaps older Koreans outside Seoul (her core supporters, who adore her father for putting the country on the road to prosperity) would be moved to take pity on the orphan of the nation. I was wrong. Her 5% public approval rating remained at 5%. In a recent poll, only 2.2% of respondents thought Park should finish out her term.
Park can’t really apologise again. Instead she is staying out of view and refusing to step down. Her office has created a special webpage to debunk rumors. Like the general in her labyrinth, the president is presumably surrounded by a dwindling circle of loyalists. There seems to be no one who can reach her in her isolation and deliver the bad news: she has lost the Mandate of Heaven. Even if she can hang on to the Blue House until her term ends in early 2018, it would only be because the liberal and conservative parties cannot find a practical solution for her removal, not because the people want her there.
Virtually the entire country stands, arm-in-arm, with their backs to the president. Each Saturday, hundreds of thousands of farmers, workers, professionals, students, families, retirees, liberals, centrists, and conservatives march through downtown Seoul, chanting, singing, cheering – ‘Park Geun-hye, step down!’.
Trump’s big problem
There’s never a good time for a power vacuum. A country whose leader lacks basic legitimacy in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of citizens is paralysed domestically and crippled in the conduct of foreign affairs. But the timing could not be worse for South Korea, given the uncertainty in the US alliance following the election of Donald Trump, who thinks of it as a favor to Koreans that US taxpayers should no longer subsidise. Even more worrisome (indeed, potentially catastrophic) is the uncertainty surrounding Trump’s approach to North Korea, and South Korea’s lack of input due to the domestic political crisis in Seoul.
Earlier in the campaign, Trump raised eyebrows by saying he had no problem talking to Kim Jong-un – actually, a good instinct. But he walked that back, and as the campaign wore on, seemingly shifted to the (false) conventional wisdom that China can easily solve the North Korean nuclear problem. The mishmash of positions suggested North Korea was not something to which Trump was giving a great deal of thought.
Since Trump’s election, however, there are hints that he is honing in on Pyongyang. The Obama Administration has warned the Trump transition team that North Korea is going to be an urgent, top priority (ironic, since the Obama policy was eight years of ‘strategic patience’). Trump’s intelligence briefing evidently alerted him to the need to pay attention, and North Korea was the only policy question that Trump treated ‘seriously’ in his first meeting with media executives as president-elect. A few days later in a wide-ranging chat at the New York Times, Trump cryptically referred to ‘a big problem for the country‘ that Obama warned him about.
North Korea is a big problem, but some of the solutions out there are even bigger ones. Who is advising Trump on how to handle the most intractable dilemma in US foreign policy and the hardest target for the US intelligence community? The most notable North Korea policy person to have his name mentioned in the Trump Cabinet rumor-mill is John Bolton, who takes the extremist position that regime change is the only solution. As far as Trump’s choice for national security advisor, Lieutenant General Mike Flynn has deep experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no background on Asia. In his book Field of Fight, Flynn treats North Korea, through its links to Iran, as a de facto ally of ‘radical Islam,’ and thus an auxiliary target in his proposed ‘global war’ against America’s enemies worldwide. Trump’s pick for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, seems to agree that North Korea and Iran are inextricably related and that negotiation is not the way to solve either problem. The Axis of Evil might be staging a comeback.
As North Korea edges ever closer to an indisputable capability to mount a nuclear warhead on an ICBM, Trump will be presented with military options. Admiral Michael Mullen got out ahead of the curve by floating a preemptive strike in September when speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed in tweets by Eliot Cohen of SAIS, who asserts with confidence that Trump will have to make an early decision about a pre-emptive strike.
Hopefully even ‘America First’ leadership can recognise that South Korea has a say in the potentially catastrophic decision to launch a military attack on Pyongyang for the first time since the end of the Korean War in 1953. If South Koreans agree on one thing (besides wanting their president to step down) it’s that no one wants a war. But if the South Korean people do not have a head of state to represent them internationally (especially in the complex new alliance dynamics with the US), their voice will be mute. In the absence of objections from Seoul, Washington will feel that much more emboldened to take risks in North Korea policy, risks whose costs are likely to be absorbed by South Koreans.
Nature abhors a vacuum. So do the great powers. Regardless of where Seoul’s political crisis is heading (resignation, impeachment, power transfer to a caretaker prime minister), South Korea’s political class better hurry up and get there fast.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency