Soul searching in South Korea
By Yoon Young-kwan
The impeachment and removal from office of South Korean President Park Geun-hyeon charges of corruption and abuse of power has rocked the country's political establishment and divided the electorate. Not since the Asian financial crisis of 1997, rooted partly in the flawed economic policies of Park's father, Park Chung-hee, have South Koreans faced such an impasse.
It's still too early to know who will succeed her in the Blue House (the presidential seat); a special election has been called for 9 May. But this much is clear: with Park's unceremonious departure, a change in South Korea's ruling party is all but assured. And with new blood must come renewed vigour to tackle governance problems – from dirty money in politics to incoherent foreign policy – that have plagued South Korea for far too long.
South Korea's current political crisis began in October 2016, when allegations emerged that Park had pressured the chaebols – the country's giant family-owned conglomerates – to funnel huge sums of money into two foundations controlled by her close personal friend, Choi Soon-sil. Word of Park's cronyism left many South Koreans feeling betrayed by a President who had vowed to lead differently.
Park, whose authoritarian style resembled that of her father, routinely disregarded basic norms of liberal democracy. She scoffed at the rule of law and separation of government powers. After being accused of corruption, she simply ignored calls to appear before the Constitutional Court to testify. Prosecutors have issued another summons for her to appear in court on 21 March; it is still unclear if she will, even though she has now lost her immunity from prosecution.
Park's removal from office almost certainly means that political power will shift from the formerly Saenuri or 'New Frontier' (now the Liberty Korea) Party to opposition forces. At the moment, candidates from the centre-left Democratic Party of Korea are leading in an effort to end nine years of conservative rule. Moon Jae-in, a former Democratic Party of Korea leader and the runner-up to Park in 2012, is the opposition's front-runner by a wide margin.
Whoever becomes South Korea's next President will be greeted by profound political, economic, and foreign policy challenges.
On the domestic front, the President will inherit a political system in need of significant reform. Aside from calls to solidify the separation of powers by establishing a more robust system of legal checks and balances, there is near-consensus on the need to overhaul the current five-year, single-term presidency. Established in 1987 during South Korea's transition to democracy, the short timeframe hampers the incumbent's ability to devise, implement, and sustain long-term policies. Park, like many of her predecessors, pushed to change the term limits, but her efforts were stymied by bad timing.
These and other changes will require democratic leadership, based on active communication with various segments of society. South Koreans are hopeful in this regard and believe that anyone will be better than Park. (According to one opinion poll, her approval rating before leaving office was a dismal 4 per cent).
The next President's biggest economic challenge will be to untangle the ties between politicians and chaebol owners. At the moment, the chaebols' proximity to political power reduces the transparency of corporate governance, discourages competition, and weakens the innovative potential of small and medium-size enterprises. The arrest in February of the Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong, on bribery charges, indicates the scope of the problem. With all major presidential candidates emphasizing the importance of fixing the chaebol problem, changes on this front are possible.
Finally, and perhaps most important, the next President will face a foreign-policy puzzle that perplexed Park for most of her tenure. Her successor will need more diplomatic acumen to stabilize relations with Japan, China, and Russia, while simultaneously working to denuclearize North Korea and thus reduce the threat Kim Jong-un's regime poses to the region.
Here, the wildcard is US President Donald Trump, who is creating his own brand of uncertainty in Asia. How Trump chooses to deal with North Korea, in particular, will be an early test for South Korea's next leader. If, as I suspect, the Trump administration turns to tightened sanctions (including secondary boycotts) and dialogue, leaders in Seoul will be able to adjust accordingly.
There will still be scope for agreement if political leaders on all sides are willing to listen. The United States' deployment in South Korea of an advanced anti-missile system is a case in point. While the move has angered China's leaders, there remains room for compromise, especially if the system's deployment is made temporary and linked to North Korea's denuclearization.
South Korea has experienced – and survived – political and economic upheaval before. After all, it was Park's own father who, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped to build a system that did little to discourage the corrupting links between politicians and chaebols. The weak financial institutions and shady corporate sector that grew from his legacy conspired to make the pain of the 1997 financial crisis even worse.
Then as now, failure at the top prompted voters to demand a new direction. Conservative leaders' collective inability to insulate South Korea from the events of 1997 cleared the way for a liberal opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung, to assume the presidency in 1998.
South Korea is very likely on the cusp of another political housecleaning. But, regardless of who arrives at the Blue House in May, their job – and the job of their party – will be to tackle the challenges that Park was so ill equipped to address.
Yoon Young-kwan, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea, is Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Seoul National University.
- China to provide 90 water bowsers worth Rs 1b 2184
- Wag the Dog 2195
- A brief look at FARC’s origins in Colombia 2145
- ‘Panama Papers’ bags Pulitzer 2168
- SAITM will cooperate with Govt 2170
- dead man was near fashion mall 2214
- Japanese MPs back Lanka’s development 2176
- CB Bond earnings whitewashed – JVP 2187
- Talks to extend Lanka’s Continental Shelf 2178
- Ex-DIG and son re-remanded 2193
- Government can be sent home 2728
- GMOA flogging SAITM for Mahinda– Rajitha 2192
- Ranil invites Japan to invest in S. Asia 2165
- Somali Pirates’ Captives Back Home 2179
- Customs in Rs 8 M bust 2176
- Redefining Rape 2279
- The march of folly Our mad Cabinet system 1819
- First adventures in Europe 1902
- Inspiration for writers 1882
- Sri Lanka’s sustainable development dream 2041
- Sinhala and Tamil New Year with Easter 2063
- Filipino Oconer wins overall title 1814
- Unsporty conduct by Joes 1862
- Bertie Wijesinghe, pre-Test era Sri Lankan cricketer, dies aged 96 1830
- CEAT revs up for 2017 1817
- Palace shock Arsenal 1807
- Argentina fire coach Bauza 1821
- BCCI postpones SGM to 18 April 1796
- Murray returns from injury 1806
- New mum Azarenka to return to WTA 1791
- Galle win by 188 runs 1793
- Keeping Cool 1812
- Do the right thing and do it now! 1821
- Ravi Jayewardene Pious son of a political giant 2406
- In the heart of the old country 2235
- Sarath Weerasekera’s Geneva adventure 2057
- No moral right to play with public funds 1977
- No need for fine if route permits are issued in fair, just manner 1868
- UDA incurs Rs 330M Loss 1810
- DOUSING A MEGA SHIP FIRE 1643
- Health authorities in denial? 2114
- Minorities’ frustration a powder keg – VIDURA 2162
- Administrative powers a must for the Plantation Tamils –Radhakrishnan 1419
- Rajapaksa sought advice from McGuinness– Indika Perera 2537
- I will lead SLFP to victory in future elections – President 1929
- Hang the ‘traitors’– RTD. REAR ADMIRAL WEERASEKARA 2318
- We oppose Nationalism and Federalism – Samarasinghe 3031
- SilkAir launches direct flights to Colombo 1866
- Rupee falls on thin volumes 1810
- SriLankan, Japan Airlines add new routes 1831
- Colombo Port box volume up 5.6-pct in Jan 1808
- Private sector to transform into main domestic growth engine 1838
- Oil eases from 5-week top, rising US production weighs 1800
- Tight fiscal and monetary policies constrain SL’s growth 1818
- Shell admits dealing with money launderer 1818
- Toshiba may sell chip business to Foxconn for $27bn 1814
- Asian shares pressured by geopolitical risks; Nikkei down 0.25% 1808
- SLIM launches Certificate in Digital Marketing 1812
- Microsoft Hosts Second ‘Device Day’ in Sri Lanka 1815
- Emirates named Best Airline in the World 1806
- Turkish Airlines and social media assist Somalia 1804
- Brain cell therapy ‘promising’ for Parkinson’s disease 1811
- Trump pushed into bombing Syria 1857
- Thailand discovers Power of Women Travellers 1825
- Economics of gambling 1707
- Trans National Aural Identity 3392
- Queen Anula The Shadow of Cleopatra 3418
- Poetry and its possibilities Part 2 3434
- The Enigma of Labyrinths 3545
- From Couture to Kutir 3427
- Hybrid Sources 4830
- Offering Riddles & Enigmas 4886
- Poetry and its possibilities 4925
- With a festive bang! 1047
- Easter Fun 1036
- Arrogance and crowing is the way of the doomed 1069
- Avurudu on the streets 1084
- Tick control 1062
- Sunny Sunday on the beach 1056
- It’s time to save the world 1118
- From viewer to YouTuber! 1119
- Expert skincare and makeup 1142
- Avurudu at Induruwa 1106
- Exo 1132
- Remembering our fallen heroes 2224