Changes in the South Korean Political Landscape after the Presidential Election

What is happening in South Korea is not just the fallout of a corruption scandal. It would be more correct to describe recent events as direct democracy in action. In this respect, one can only marvel at how far the country has come in the 25 years since the start of democratic reforms. 

For the first time in its history, a president has been legitimately removed from office. On one hand, this is certainly unfortunate for a political system. But on the other, it is a strong indication that this society can continue to develop in a self-sufficient manner and is capable of dealing with the problems and shortcomings of a leader’s dictatorial ambitions on its own. For Korea, this is a huge step.

In reality, the reason President Park Geun-hye was impeached was not corruption per se. In South Korea, corruption is built into the system and is unlikely to be eradicated any time soon. Of course, the next leader will be more cautious, but the South Korean model will not move forward without exchanges of this sort between business and the ruling circles. The public was outraged primarily because Park Geun-hye was haughty and tried to dictate her will without listening to advice, and because she fell back on obscure friends and fortunetellers to rule the country. In other words, she used undemocratic and dictatorial methods in the spirit of her father.

South Korean society will be different. The ruling party has been discredited, and the political landscape will start to change in the next election that will likely bring the opposition to power. As of today, Geun-hye’s most likely successor is the Democratic Party’s Moon Jae-in, but there will be turbulence until then because, first, the Democrats are not sufficiently grounded in the South Korean establishment and, second, the Democratic party itself is divided, since Moon Jae-in is not the kind of a charismatic leader who can rally the nation.

There is little chance that a Democratic government would retreat from the country’s basic political precepts, most importantly the US-South Korean alliance. It is also naïve to hope that the Democrats would be willing to reverse the THAAD (the US antimissile system) deployment. Their relations with the Trump administration will not be easy, but they will remain allies all the same. We should have no illusions in this regard, as certain Russian analysts tend to conclude.

The country’s policy on China will see serious changes. Under Park Geun-hye, relations with China were deadlocked, and now South Korea will have to look for compromises that are unlikely to be beneficial for Seoul. But no government can afford to be in a situation where a major trade partner and geopolitical giant is so hostile toward South Korea.

To what extent will relations with North Korea improve? I would like to warn against excessive optimism. It is hard to imagine anything worse than before. Therefore, a rollback will occur and attempts will be made to find compromises with North Korea. But both the political class and the South Korea people share a stereotype that North Korea is unstable and not a country at all but a gang of thugs that has no right to exist; nuclear weapons are the fundamental variable that makes further dialogue with them impossible. This attitude is unlikely to change and insofar as North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons, progress in relations will be limited. I’m not at all sure that the incoming administration will feature the dynamic personalities who can promote a vision of the future and be able to counter stereotypes and offer a national reconciliation policy like Kim Dae-jung did. Kim Jong-un, too, is a harsh and impulsive person, unlike his father, who was, after all, a relatively moderate politician. So relations are unlikely to improve, but at least they shouldn’t deteriorate. I hope that the opposition will step back from the brink of armed conflict on which Korea is now tottering.

As for Russia, there will be room for improvement in Russian-South Korean economic and political relations, provided the administration pursues a more balanced foreign policy and a more democratic domestic course. So, Park Geun-hye’s departure is, on balance, good news for Russia. I think we will make some headway, which will be beneficial for both improving the situation on the Korean Peninsula and for potentially transitioning to a multilateral diplomatic settlement process. Bilateral relations should profit as well.       

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.