Friday 27 April, 2018 Update: The Korean Summit has Ended. Now What Happens?

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Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in have concluded their one-day summit in the South Korean section of the Joint Security Area The first meeting between leaders of the two Koreas in over a decade was heavy on symbolism and drama. The two leaders pledged to bring the Korean War to a formal end, as well as make the entire Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. The global media simply could not get enough, declaring the meeting to be a success far beyond the hopes of both sides, and fawning over the images of Kim Jong Un crossing the border into South Korea.

What the media fails to mention is the fact that the two Koreas have been down this road before. At the previously held inter-Korean summit meetings the leaders of both nations made broad promises to cooperate on a number of issues, and pave the way for closer relations in the future. As time went on, the opposite happened and the Koreas returned to the tense, hostile relationship that both sides had hoped was permanently in the past. With this in mind, many observers are understandably skeptical about the pledges made by Un and Moon.

The 2018 summit is neither an end or a beginning. It is the latest move in a decades-long chess match. The overall hope is that this gathering has laid the groundwork for a more crucial meeting between US President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un in the near future. Achieving this was a goal of both Korean leaders, but for entirely different reasons. Moon was intent on being seen as the man greatly responsible for thawing the US-North Korean standoff and bringing both sides to the negotiating table. He also wants to be able to take a large portion of the credit for any US-North Korean agreements regarding denuclearization. Un wants to negotiate with the United States, however, his reasons and motivation are suspect. Meeting with Trump as an equal would be seen as a major victory in Un’s eyes and establish North Korea as a world power. If there’s no concrete chances of him relinquishing North Korea’s nuclear weapons though, it’s highly unlikely the United States will agree to a meeting. And right now, there’s no proof the North Koreans intend to remain committed to denuclearizing their half of the peninsula, regardless of Un’s promises at the summit meeting yesterday.

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.

Monday 21 November, 2016 Update: South Korea’s Political Crisis

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It goes without saying that the northern half of the Korean Peninsula has been a cauldron of political instability for some time. The world has become accustomed to, and in some regards, desensitized to the saber-rattling, and political crises in North Korea. So, imagine the surprise and alarm that has been spreading across the region since this major political crisis broke out in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The ongoing crisis is threatening to topple ROK President Park Geun-hye and encase the nation in political paralysis for the foreseeable future. In short, North Korea no longer holds a monopoly on political instability on the Korean Peninsula. The ROK is suffering now as well, and the ramifications of a politically weakened South Korea are not in the best interest of that country or its allies.

Park is embroiled in a major political crisis at present. The president, and her associates are battling allegations of influence-peddling, and extortion. The main character in this drama is Choi Soon-sil, a longtime Park friend and confidant.  Park relied on her for everything from policy advice to wardrobe choices. She has been accused of using her influence and status to raise funds and gain influence for herself and family members. On Sunday, prosecutors formally indicted her on charges that include extortion and abuse of power. The prosecutors also indicated that they consider Park to be complicit in the crimes. That perspective would make the president a suspect in the case and not a witness.  According to ROK law, the president cannot be charged with a crime while in office, however, prosecutors have said they will continue to investigate Park.

Opposition leaders have begun calling for her impeachment, though the effort has not gained traction and likely will not. If an impeachment motion fails to pass, or if the Constitutional Court strikes it down, Park’s chances of surviving the crisis will increase markedly. Calls for Park to step down are increasing in number and volume though. South Korean citizens have not remained impartial and on the sidelines during this crisis either. Park’s approval rating is hovering around 5% and for the last four weekends hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to call for Park’s resignation in the largest demonstrations seen in the ROK since the 1980s. On Saturday, an anti-president rally in Seoul brought out upwards of 500,000 people.

Whether Park resigns or remains in power, the nation’s domestic and geopolitical fortunes appear bleak. If she stays, opposition parties will move to ensure that nothing of value gets done for the rest of her term. There is serious concern that opposition parties will move in the National Assembly to block any military intelligence sharing agreement between the ROK and Japan. The basing of THAAD in-country will also face new scrutiny and runs the possibility of being scuttled altogether.

Then there is North Korea. The political crisis in the South has raised serious concerns about Kim Jong Un attempting to exploit the situation for North Korea’s gain. At the very least, Park’s woes have presented Un with a propaganda gift and the opportunity to gloat about the failure of democracy in the south. The exulting increases by the day as Kim and his aides undoubtedly are discussing strategy behind the scenes. North Korea is walking a fine line despite the troubles to the south. If it opts to make a geopolitical move, the action cannot be overly provocative. That would shift attention away from the crisis and provide Park with an opportunity to dig in and rally the ROK around the flag to face the challenge.  Nor can Kim move timidly and run a risk of losing credibility at home or abroad. He is facing his own challenges and the wrong move could bring the North Korean house of cards tumbling down.

 

Wednesday 24 August, 2016 Update: North Korea Test Fires Another SLBM

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Say what you will about Kim Jong Un but he certainly has a flare for the dramatic. As US and ROK forces begin their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military exercises on the southern half of the Korean peninsula and the Japanese, Chinese, and South Korean foreign ministers begin meetings in Tokyo, North Korea chooses today to test fire a sub-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). A KN-11 missile was launched from the waters off the nation’s east coast by a North Korean submarine. It flew east for roughly 500 miles before coming down in the Sea of Japan. South Korean officials were quick to call the action an ‘armed protest’ and the label is an accurate one. North Korea is prohibited by the UN from using any ballistic missile or nuclear technology. The UN ban has not deterred North Korea from conducting a series of test firings in recent months or moving forward with preparations for yet another test of a nuclear device. Unofficial US and Japanese intelligence estimates suggest a nuclear test will take place sometime within the next 30 days.

The test was North Korea’s most successful SLBM to date and raises concerns among US, Japanese and South Korean allies. Although North Korea’s submarines are obsolete and noisy by modern day standards, in the event of a conflict, SLBM capable subs would pose a real danger to civilian and military targets in South Korea and Japan. This test lends additional justification to the South Korean-US agreement to deploy the THAAD system to the peninsula.

With Ulchi-Freedom Guardian underway additional North Korean missile tests and saber-rattling should be expected. Although Kim Jong Un’s regime has proven to be unpredictable and irrational, it responds to US and ROK military exercises in a very uniform manner.