As South Korean President Moon Jae-in touts the progress his administration has made in improving relations with North Korea, many of his fellow countrymen remain skeptical about the sincerity behind North Korea’s promises to end missile tests, and close its nuclear test site down permanently. South Koreans may not be entirely jaded, but they’ve been down this road enough times to know from experience that the chance of the North living up to its promises is slim. Earlier attempts by South Korean leaders to improve relations between the Koreas have all been relatively short-lived. The relationship between North and South always returned to the bitterness, and hostility that has largely defined it since the end of the Korean War. Moon enjoys a high level of popularity among South Koreans at the moment. However, if his renewed Sunshine Policy doesn’t net results, Moon could be facing political problems at home and abroad.
Moon appears convinced North Korea is sincere and desires complete denuclearization. He has been open in his opinions, and, whether he is aware of it or not, has become an unsanctioned interpreter of North Korea’s perceived intentions. Others would consider him to be something more akin to a mouthpiece for his North Korean counterpart. His determination to seal the deal on North Korean denuclearization and attach it to a potential peace treaty is bold and perilous. If North Korea does forfeit its nuclear weapons, Moon’s political capital will soar. On the flip side, if the North decides to keep its nuclear weapons, or the love-fest Moon is promoting does not carry over to US-North Korean relations, the South Korean leader will be the scapegoat.
Moon’s role in the current drama playing out is quite significant. However, it would benefit him to remember that he is a supporting character. Inter-Korean relations are secondary to the standoff between the United States and North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. The direction events go in following next week’s meeting between Moon and Kim Jong Un will be determined largely in Pyongyang and Washington, not Seoul.
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.