troubled seoul–The turmoil in Korea–47fh.,b4
A small cohort of defenders massed in front of the prosecutors’ office to show their support for the former president as she faced interrogation over the bribery scandal that led to her impeachment last December. Park flashed a grim look and said she was “sorry to the people” before enduring some 14 hours of questioning. Her presidential immunity now stripped, there’s a good chance that Madame Park will have gone from living in Korea’s presidential residence, the Blue House, to moving into the Big House: Prosecutors are bringing serious charges against her. And the candidate most likely to succeed her as president has indicated that there will be no presidential pardon.
South Korea has been officially president-less since December 9, when the National Assembly voted for Park’s impeachment. She was immediately suspended from office—though allowed to remain in the Blue House—while the Constitutional Court deliberated whether to accept the National Assembly’s decision. (The country’s prime minister assumed presidential duties following Park’s impeachment, though, appropriately, he has treated this largely as a caretaker role.) In early March, the unanimous decision came down: Park was out. A new president will be elected May 9.
Park needed to go, but South Koreans sure picked an awfully inconvenient time to not have a president. As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump delighted in bashing South Korea, claiming that the close U.S. ally doesn’t pay enough for the presence of U.S. forces in the country. (Though the numbers have fallen slightly, more than 28,000 U.S. servicemen are still stationed here, guarding against North Korean invasion.) Trump also bemoaned South Korea’s industrial policies, lamenting, for example, that Korea has become a powerhouse for television manufacturing, a business that all but dried up in the United States a generation ago.
Korea test-fired a missile during Abe’s U.S. visit, Trump’s statement mentioned only North Korea’s threat to Japan—not the threat to South Korea. In the zero-sum world of East Asian politics, Japan’s diplomatic wins can’t help but look like losses for South Korea. Unfortunately, the South Koreans haven’t had a president to try the Abe approach on Trump, and they’ve fallen behind because of it.
Park’s downfall began last October, when news surfaced of the president’s bizarrely close relationship with a lifelong female friend, Choi Soon-sil. Choi, despite having no official role in government or even a security clearance, had Rasputin-like levels of influence over Park. She edited the president’s speeches; told her what to wear; dictated orders to Park’s official aides. Choi had access to at least 47 confidential government documents.
Choi’s father also had a longstanding relationship with Park. He was a religious flim-flam man, dubbed a “pseudo-pastor” by his own country’s CIA. . But the relations appear to have been criminal as well. Leveraging her close connections with the president, Choi, working in league with several of the president’s aides, allegedly extorted around $60 million from South Korea’s chaebol—the massive conglomerates that dominate the economy here. The scandal has felled Samsung’s chief, who was arrested in February for paying nearly $40 million in bribes to Choi. Choi herself is also facing prosecution. And former president Park was arrested on March 31, on suspicion of bribery and abuse of authority, among other charges.
Even so, the extent of her political incompetence is shocking. At the outset of the scandal, Park appears to have lied, telling the nation that she merely sought advice on speeches and public relations from Choi. Throughout her downfall, she essentially refused to apologize, offering half-baked statements of regret. And she has looked laughably out of touch, cloistered in the Blue House: As the protests swelled, in one Trumpian moment, Park hilariously suggested that there might have been twice as many demonstrators supporting her as there were marching against her.
The North Korean regime detested some of the actions Park took, most notably shuttering the Kaesong Industrial Zone, a ridiculous vestige of Kim Dae-jung’s turn-of-the-millennium “Sunshine Policy,” whereby South Korean companies paid North Korean workers to assemble products. Needless to say, most of the “salaries” paid to the workers were funneled directly to the North Korean regime.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is proving to be different from, even worse than his late father, Kim Jong-il. It’s not just that the young dauphin has rapidly moved ahead with his country’s missile and nuclear weapons programs while undertaking a vicious set of purges at home. Nor is it only the brazen assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in a crowded Malaysian airport, ordered by the regime and committed with an internationally banned chemical weapon. He seems as well to have a different view of the purpose of his nuclear program than his father did.
Kim Jong-il, and Kim Il-sung before him, dreamed of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the one way to ensure the survival of their brutal hereditary regime. This is why it never made any sense to cut “deals” with Pyongyang, in which the international community would bribe the North into abandoning its nuclear program. This was the basic outline of the Clinton administration’s 1994 Agreed Framework. But it was ludicrous wishful thinking, as that sorry episode showed. For the Kim regime, nukes have always been non-negotiable; they were seen as the only way to prevent a U.S.-led invasion. They’ll only give them up if they have no other choice.
under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, Pyongyang’s propaganda has increasingly touted “autonomous unification,” a term that “has always stood for the conquest or subjugation of South Korea after nullification or removal of the U.S. military presence.” Myers further reports that Kim has been promoting “final victory” in addresses to North Korea’s military. This is alarming, for Kim’s vision of “final victory” is a unified Korea—under his dictatorship.
The present moment is therefore deeply troubling, even if life in Seoul, some 35 miles from the border, continues at its typically frenetic, amped-up, soju-fueled pace. It’s a time of maximum peril—and one that Barack Obama’s administration did little to forestall. When it came to North Korea, Obama sat on his hands for eight years, though he gussied up this lack of action by giving it a fancy name and pretending it was a policy: “strategic patience.” Then he passed off the problem like a hot potato. When Trump took office, Obama reportedly told the new president that North Korea was the gravest threat he would face.
But Kim Han-kwon, a China expert at Korea’s National Diplomatic Academy, suggests to me that Tillerson’s strong talk was aimed more at Beijing than Pyongyang. China is loath to see a military strike on North Korea, fearing it might bring down the regime or start a war. Tillerson’s calculation, Kim suggests, is that threatening such an action will lead Beijing finally to take serious steps of its own to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Cutting off energy aid could be key, such a threat to its survival that the North Korean regime could possibly be coerced to disarm.
That would take a big shift from Beijing, however, which has lately been targeting the wrong Korea.
Last July, the United States and South Korea announced plans to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, in a bid to protect U.S. troops and South Koreans from North Korean missiles.
Beijing—claiming spuriously that the system will be used to spy on China—has reacted ferociously. Beijing has banned South Korean celebrities from entering China, where they’re wildly popular, barred Korean movies from Chinese cinemas, and closed more than 50 Lotte department stores in China, citing “fire safety”—perhaps the only time in recorded history that the Chinese regime has taken safety regulations seriously.
In mid-March, the Beijing regime banned Chinese group tours to Korea, a tough blow given that nearly half of the foreign tourists to South Korea hail from China. Indeed, whole shopping districts in Seoul have in recent years reconfigured themselves to appeal to Chinese tastes; one of them, Myeongdong, was utterly devoid of shoppers, Chinese or otherwise, on a recent afternoon.
The most profound division in Korea is the DMZ, a man-made abomination that since 1953 has cleaved a country that was unified for thousands of years in two. But South Korean society is deeply split as well: between young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban. On the electoral level, broadly speaking, the divisions mirror those in the West: The old tend to vote conservative, the young lean more liberal. Increased educational attainment seems to correlate with moving leftward as well. Professor Jung Kim, an expert on South Korean domestic politics at the University of North Korean Studies, tells me that the poor tend to be the most conservative voters in South Korea—though poverty is correlated with increased age.
After the transition to democracy, those associated with the military governments tended to move into the conservative political parties, and dyed-in-the-wool democrats moved left. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that even today, some South Korean conservatives have had a hard time adjusting to governing democratically. Park Geun-hye was no exception: Her aides drew up a “blacklist” of writers and artists who were hostile to her administration and banned them from receiving government funds. (This manifestly anti-democratic action resulted in the arrest of her culture minister.) And she led a failed effort to overhaul South Korean school textbooks, in a way, critics said, that glorified her dictator dad. The divisions in Korea, then, aren’t just typical left-right fights: They also reflect latent attitudes about democracy and dictatorship.
The South Korean electorate may be unique in that increasing threats do not necessarily push voters to the right.
Moon’s victory could portend bad times for the U.S.-Korea alliance. “I am personally worrying about the opposition party’s view of national security based on the anti-Americanism, North Korea-friendly policies, and an [attempt] to change [the] Korea-U.S. alliance,” says Oh Yong-hee, the secretary general of the International Relations Bureau at the Liberty Korea party. He has reason to worry: In December, Moon said he would seek to visit Pyongyang before Washington, a sign of where his priorities lie.
” Moon has also vowed to reevaluate the THAAD deployment, though people here think there’s little chance he’ll scuttle the system, which is already being installed.
One thing is certain: Moon will pursue warmer relations with North Korea and China. And he’ll have widespread public support for the latter, given that China exerts great economic power over its smaller neighbor. Objectively speaking, South Korea is not a small country—at 50 million people strong, it’s only a little less populous than South Africa—but sandwiched between Japan and China, it feels like one to them. The urge to tilt towards China will be profound.
In the months and years ahead, there’s a danger—though it’s far from a foregone conclusion—that South Korea could join the likes of the Philippines and drift away from its historic ally in Washington and towards China. That would be a true shame. South Korea is a jewel: a beacon of democracy surrounded by dictatorships; a loyal friend to the United States.
source–ethan e[stein, br myers, kim han-kwon, thaad, jung kim, park geun-hye, moon jae-in, jung kim, oh yong-hee wky std.