The Heritage Foundation

Issue Brief #4635 on South Korea

December 1, 2016

December 1, 2016 | Issue Brief on South Korea

South Korean Political Crisis Poses Challenge for Trump Administration

South Korea is embroiled in a fast-moving political scandal that will lead to the removal of President Park Geun-hye and could well endanger critical national security policies and strain the alliance relationship with the United States. President Park’s political life hangs by a thread, and it is only a matter of time before she either resigns or is impeached.

The crisis has prevented President Park from establishing relations with the incoming Trump Administration. Her departure from office would lead to policy paralysis and a political vacuum in a critical U.S. ally at a time when Washington and Seoul should be closely coordinating alliance defense plans and North Korea sanctions policy. The progressive opposition parties are attempting to exploit the emergency to reverse Park’s initiatives to pressure North Korea, improve relations with Japan, and augment South Korea’s defenses against North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threat.

North Korea may feel emboldened to take advantage of Park’s diminished status and to test the incoming Trump Administration’s resolve. Potential provocations include another tactical inter-Korean clash on the border or a North Korean long-range missile test with nuclear airburst.

Influence-Peddling Scandal. On November 20, the South Korea prosecutor declared that President Park had colluded in a criminal case of abuse of authority, coercion, and leak of classified information. Park was named as an official suspect and accomplice in an ongoing criminal investigation, the first time that a sitting South Korean president had been so identified.[1] The prosecutor added that the only reason Park was not indicted is her presidential immunity under the South Korean constitution.

The prosecutor indicted Park’s long-time friend Choi Soon-sil for embezzlement, attempted fraud, and abuse of authority. She allegedly coerced $70 million from South Korean corporations for two foundations she created and then siphoned off the funds for personal purposes. Despite not holding any official government position, Choi had unprecedented access to the president, intervened in policy and personnel decisions, and received classified information.

Choi has been called the “Korean Rasputin” for her apparent power over the president. She is the daughter of a shaman cult leader who claimed to Park decades ago that he could converse with her dead mother.

Walls Closing in on Park. Opposition parties concluded that President Park’s allegedly criminal acts merited impeachment and announced that they would push for a formal vote, possibly as early as December 2. A motion for impeachment requires a majority of the National Assembly (151 out of 300 members) for presentation to the legislature and two-thirds (200 out of 300) for approval.

An impeached president would cede powers to the prime minister but remain in office until the Constitutional Court adjudicates the legality of the impeachment within 180 days. If the court approved the impeachment, the president would be removed from office and an election would be held within 60 days.

If the National Assembly were to approve an impeachment bill in early December, an election to replace the president might not occur until next August, only four months before the scheduled December 2017 election. Alternatively, if Park were to resign, she would depart office immediately and a replacement election would take place 60 days later.

Park Throws in the Towel. Park initially resisted questioning by the prosecutor and rejected calls for her resignation. President Park’s approval rating plummeted to 4 percent—the lowest ever for a Korean president—and a 90 percent negative view. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators swelled the streets of Seoul for weekly protests.

On November 29, Park abruptly reversed course, meekly acquiescing to the National Assembly determining her fate. In a bizarre and convoluted public statement,[2] Park commented that she would “follow the National Assembly’s decision about my course of resignation as the President, including cutting short my remaining term.” She called on the ruling and opposition parties to create a plan to “transfer governing power in a way that can minimize any chaos and power vacuum in state affairs, I will resign from the presidency according to the rules and schedules proposed by the National Assembly.”

Yet experts were divided on whether Park was a brilliant strategist who derailed an imminent impeachment vote or a forlorn leader ready to abdicate but not quite willing to take the step by herself. It is unclear whether she offered anything to the National Assembly that it did not already have authority to do under the impeachment clause of the constitution.

Her speech threw the National Assembly into disarray. Members of her ruling Saenuri Party, who were willing to vote for her impeachment this week, may now be walking back from the abyss to negotiate a graceful resignation. The opposition parties, which had long called for Park’s resignation, now seem unable to take “yes” for an answer. The opposition called her initiative a “trick” and vowed to continue with impeachment proceedings.

Impact on South Korean Politics. Park’s presidency is finished. The only issue is whether she resigns or is impeached. The pace of the crisis and how quickly Park’s ability to control her fate deteriorated is mind-boggling.

The conservative Saenuri Party will likely not survive Park’s crisis. Political parties in South Korea are fluid and frequently reorganize or rename themselves to project a new image. The party has been riven by infighting between pro- and anti-Park factions and will likely splinter. The anti-Park group will bolt the party to distance themselves from the scandal.

The progressive opposition is now more likely to win the next presidential election. It is using the crisis to discredit and block progress on important South Korean policies. The opposition is eager to return to its predecessors’ failed attempts at unconditional engagement with North Korea. It would downplay sanctions on North Korea, substituting economic largesse including resuming the Kaesong and Kumgangsan economic ventures with Pyongyang.

The opposition is willing to capitulate to Chinese threats by abandoning the planned deployment of the THAAD missile defense system to South Korea. It is willing to downplay the U.S. alliance and put relations with Japan at arm’s length, including delaying implementation of the bilateral comfort-women agreement and the recent military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

What the U.S. Should Do

A progressive South Korean administration would be troublesome both for the alliance and for the overall relationship with Washington. If the new South Korean administration perceived a degradation in U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea, it could lead Seoul to adopt hedging policies and become more accommodating to China.

U.S. strategic and economic objectives are achieved through strong partnerships with Asian nations that share our values. It behooves the new Trump Administration to reassure allies that while U.S. Administrations change, America’s commitment and resolve to defend its friends do not. This includes affirming the U.S. extended deterrence guarantee and maintaining robust forward-deployed U.S. forces in the Western Pacific.

The Trump Administration should abandon the timid incrementalism of President Barack Obama and enhance sanctions to increase pressure on the North Korean regime in response to its repeated violations of U.S. law and U.N. Security Council resolutions. Washington should impose third-party sanctions, particularly on Chinese entities.

If the Trump Administration were to press strongly on renegotiating the Korea–U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement and demand significant increases in cost-sharing arrangements for stationing of U.S. troops, it could lead to a resurgence of anti-American protests.

Conclusion

President Park has been a steadfast and reliable partner to the United States in confronting North Korea, particularly after Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January. After initial counterproductive policies that strained relations with Japan, Park displayed commendable political courage by standing up to nationalist elements in her country and reaching out to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Unfortunately, there is nothing that Washington can do to ameliorate President Park’s woes. The collapse of Park Geun-hye’s presidency and her likely replacement by a progressive candidate may be President Donald Trump’s first foreign policy crisis.

Bruce Klingner is a Senior Research Fellow in the Asian Studies Center, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: South Korea

Show references in this report

[1] Choe Sang-hun, “Park Geun-hye Was Accomplice in Extortion, South Korean Prosecutors Say,” The New York Times, November 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/world/asia/park-geun-hye-south-korea-extortion-accomplice-prosecutors.html?ref=asia@_r=1 (accessed November 30, 2016).

[2] “[FULL SCRIPT] President Park’s speech on Nov. 29,” Yonhap, November 29, 2016, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2016/11/116_219140.html (accessed November 30, 2016).