Friday 10 March, 2017 Update: South Korean President Removed From Office

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In South Korea, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye was made official by the Constitutional Court on Friday. The body ruled unanimously to uphold the removal of the embattled South Korean President, who had been impeached by a parliamentary vote in December, 2016. Park’s fall from power stems from her involvement in the corruption scandal that has dominated South Korea for the better part of a year. Park was impeached on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from South Korean businesses and abusing her powers in an elaborate scheme with her longtime friend and unofficial adviser Choi Soon-sil. The political scandal was the largest in South Korean history and marked the first time a democratically elected South Korean president has been removed from office. Park is now open to possible prosecution, something she was immune to during her time in office.

As the dust settles from this scandal, South Korea looks ahead to an uncertain political future. New presidential elections must be held within the next 60 days. 9 May, 2017 is the expected date for the elections to begin. Until then, former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will continue performing in the role of Acting President. Park’s shameful exit from the national political stage presents the possibility of a shift in South Korea’s political balance to the opposition. Conservatives are in disarray following her removal and the consensus is that Moon Jae-in, a liberal who lost to Park in 2012, stands the best chance of emerging as South Korea’s next leader.

If Moon, or another opposition candidate takes power it could bring a major change to South Korea’s dealings with North Korea, and the nation’s relations with the United States. The opposition parties in Seoul favor more engagement and less confrontation with the North. Moon was a member of President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration in the 2000s. Roh was the creator of the Sunshine Policy, a rapprochement effort that involved trade and cultural exchanges with North Korea. The policy was ended by conservatives after it became apparent that North Korea was expanding its nuclear and missile programs in the same time period. Politicians like Moon are also wary of what they view as an increased US military footprint in the region.

Timing, as always, is everything. This political crisis and the aftermath comes at a delicate time in the region. The United States has begun the deployment of THAAD missile batteries to South Korea in response to continued North Korean missile tests. The deployment has brought harsh criticism from China, along with warnings of a possible East Asian arms race in the near future. North Korea, along with its missile firings, is embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with Malaysia which arose from the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur last month. South Korea’s turmoil is adding additional ambivalence and tension to a region in desperate need of cohesion at the moment.

Friday 9 December, 2016 Update: South Korean President Impeached

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The global political order took another major hit on Friday with the impeachment of South Korean (Republic of Korea, ROK) President Park Geun-hye. The National Assembly passed the decision to impeach by a wide margin, 234-56. Park has been a major player for months in the nation’s largest political crisis ever. Yet while thousands of citizens demonstrated and called for her to resign Park held firm. Opposition parties were reluctant to call for impeachment because of the possibility, surprisingly not unprecedented, that Park could be exonerated by the process. The tipping point apparently came when prosecutors accused Park of being an active player in the corrupt dealings of her longtime friend and close associate Choi Soon-sil.

The next step in the process is for the Constitutional Court to rule on the validity of the motion to impeach. That could come in as little as three weeks. If the impeachment vote is upheld, a new presidential election will take place two months from then. Park will be unable to run, of course. However, if the impeachment is not upheld, she will be reinstated and serve out the remainder of her term in office. Park was removed from power immediately following the vote on Friday. During the Constitutional Court’s deliberations, the ROK’s acting head of state will be Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Hwang’s role will be that of a caretaker essentially. He is unlikely to make any major policy decisions or changes. Barring a major international crisis his duties should be rather bland.

On a larger stage, the impeachment brings up many questions. Out of those available, let’s touch on a handful that are compelling…

Will this crisis embolden North Korea in some way? We touched on this question back in November. So far, Pyongyang has been content just to gloat at the political chaos in the ROK. Given Kim Jong Un’s instability, that could change in the blink of an eye. Even minor saber-rattling by the North might have the potential to escalate into something considerably more dangerous.

How will the impeachment vote complicate relations between the ROK and United States? Preident-elect Trump scrutinized the defense relationship during the presidential campaign. How this translates after 20 January 2017 remains to be seen. There are so many moving parts in the relationship that nothing firm will be decided on until a new president is elected in the ROK.

Who will ascend to the presidency next in the ROK? South Koreans are learning that when masses of citizens who are generally powerless come together, they can wield substantial power. The rest of the world is learning this as well, but the concept is strikingly foreign to the average South Korean. Will the next president be a populist, following in the wake of the anti-establishment fervor that has swept across the globe? What will the next president’s policies mean for the economy? Relations with the US? Relations with the North? At the moment the safe bet is that the next president will come from the political left, however, anything is possible at this point.

Until the Constitutional Court makes its ruling, all South Korea and the world can do is watch and wait.