S. Korea likely to re­set its N. Korea, China ties

Pres­i­dent’s ouster of­fers open­ing for pro­gres­sive leader.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Anna Fi­field Washington Post

With the ouster of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye, new elec­tions may bring pro­gres­sive to of­fice who fa­vors Py­ongyang en­gage­ment.

The his­toric ouster of Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye on Fri­day means that South Korea will hold elec­tions within 60 days to elect a new leader. That will come as a re­lief for South Kore­ans, ex­hausted by months of scan­dal and im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings, but it should also as­suage U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers.

In the three months since Park was sus­pended over cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions, plung­ing the coun­try into limbo, the regime in North Korea has launched five bal­lis­tic mis­siles and a vol­ley of threats, and is ac­cused of or­der­ing the as­sas­si­na­tion of the leader’s half brother.

Add to that China’s anger over the de­ploy­ment of a U.S. mis­sile de­fense sys­tem to South Korea and un­cer­tainty about the change in ad­min­is­tra­tion in Washington, and the lack of lead­er­ship in South Korea could hardly have come at a more sen­si­tive time.

“A po­lit­i­cal vac­uum like this in a key ally that bor­ders a ma­jor nu­clear threat is not good for the U.S.,” said John Delury, an Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Seoul. “I think it’s been un­der­es­ti­mated as a dan­ger and as a desta­bi­liz­ing fac­tor.”

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son will en­counter this prob­lem first­hand when he ar­rives in Seoul next week for dis­cus­sions about North Korea with a South Korean coun­ter­part — Prime Min­is­ter and act­ing Pres­i­dent Hwang Kyo-ahn — who is on the way out. Tiller­son will also hear about the rise of a pro­gres­sive can­di­date who could take a sharply dif­fer­ent ap­proach to­ward China and North Korea from Park — and from the United States.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is now con­duct­ing a pol­icy re­view to de­cide how to deal with North Korea’s threats, and there is plenty of talk in Washington about “ki­netic op­tions” — a eu­phemism for some kind of mil­i­tary ac­tion. Mean­while, in Tokyo, some rul­ing party law­mak­ers are now openly push­ing for Ja­pan to de­velop the ca­pac­ity to pre­emp­tively strike North Korea.

That’s the kind of talk that South Korea should be try­ing to shut down, Delury said. In ad­di­tion to its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams, North Korea has con­ven­tional ar­tillery lined up along the de­mil­i­ta­rized zone and aimed at Seoul, a city of 25 mil­lion peo­ple.

“The role of a South Korean pres­i­dent, whether lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive, is to be the per­son who gen­tly takes that op­tion off the ta­ble,” Delury said. “The South Korean pres­i­dent has to be say­ing, ‘If you take out their mis­sile pad, they take out our cap­i­tal.’ But that hasn’t been hap­pen­ing.”

Park was im­me­di­ately dis­missed from of­fice Fri­day after South Korea’s Con­sti­tu­tional Court up­held a leg­isla­tive im­peach­ment mo­tion, rul­ing unan­i­mously that she had “con­tin­u­ously” bro­ken the law.

Elec­tions will now be held in early May, and the lat­est opin­ion polls show Moon Jae-in, a pro­gres­sive who un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged Park for the pres­i­dency in 2012, hold­ing a strong lead.

Moon is a pro­po­nent of the “sun­shine pol­icy” of en­gage­ment with North Korea, the lib­eral idea from the late 1990s that en­gage­ment can help open up the closed state and nar­row the gap be­tween the two Koreas.

That pol­icy came to an end in 2008 with the elec­tion of a con­ser­va­tive pres­i­dent who took a tough ap­proach to­ward North Korea, a stance main­tained by Park.

Fol­low­ing North Korea’s nu­clear test at the be­gin­ning of last year, Park’s govern­ment closed the in­ter-Korean in­dus­trial com­plex that was the linch­pin of the sun­shine pol­icy, un­equiv­o­cally charg­ing that South Korean cash in­vested in eco­nomic en­gage­ment projects was be­ing chan­neled di­rectly to the North’s weapons pro­grams.

Moon, how­ever, has said he would like to re­sume en­gage­ment with North Korea and would go to Py­ongyang for talks with its leader.

“If Moon wins the gen­eral elec­tion, he will em­pha­size South Korea’s al­liance with the U.S. and a strong de­fense pos­ture,” said Lee Chung­min, a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Yon­sei Univer­sity. “But his heart will lie in fos­ter­ing deeper en­gage­ment with the North and ne­go­ti­at­ing an early sum­mit with Kim Jong Un.”

Moon has also sig­naled an open­ness to re­view­ing the Park govern­ment’s agree­ment to host the United States’ Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense an­timis­sile bat­tery, known as THAAD.

The agree­ment was reached last year to pro­tect against North Korean mis­siles, and the sys­tem was due to ar­rive in South Korea this sum­mer. But in a sur­prise an­nounce­ment, the Pen­tagon said the first ship­ment ar­rived in South Korea on Mon­day.

This has sparked wide­spread spec­u­la­tion in South Korea that the United States ex­pected Park to be im­peached and wanted to make the de­ploy­ment more dif­fi­cult to re­verse. The U.S. mil­i­tary com­mand in South Korea said the de­ploy­ment was be­ing car­ried out ac­cord­ing to sched­ule.

China has ve­he­mently ob­jected to the ar­rival of THAAD in the re­gion, view­ing its de­ploy­ment as an Amer­i­can at­tempt to keep China, not just North Korea, in check. To try to co­erce South Korea to change its mind, Bei­jing has im­posed painful re­stric­tions on South Korean im­ports of every­thing from toi­let seats to pop mu­sic.

“We are all very clear that the crux of the prob­lem be­tween China and South Korea is that South Korea is ig­nor­ing China’s con­cerns and is de­ploy­ing the THAAD an­timis­sile sys­tem with the United States,” Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Geng Shuang said Fri­day. “We once again urge South Korea to fo­cus on the in­ter­ests of the Chi­nese and Korean peo­ple.”


Sup­port­ers of South Korean Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye re­act Fri­day in Seoul after she was dis­missed from of­fice. The Con­sti­tu­tional Court up­held a leg­isla­tive im­peach­ment mo­tion, rul­ing unan­i­mously she had “con­tin­u­ously” bro­ken the law.

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