Riding the Political Divide in South Korea

6 MINS READNov 30, 2016 | 04:01 GMT
Riding the Political Divide in South Korea
(JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
South Korean President Park Geun Hye's nationally televised announcement of her willingness to resign in the face of a growing political scandal drew intense reactions from the public but may do little to calm the country's political turmoil.
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Following weeks of growing popular protests calling for her resignation, and with a parliamentary vote on whether to initiate impeachment procedures on the horizon, South Korean President Park Geun Hye has offered to step down on a timetable agreed upon by the parliament. In a speech on Tuesday, Park agreed to follow the parliament's guidance to ensure political stability. But far from easing South Korea's political turbulence, Park's offer may have increased it. The ruling Saenuri Party welcomed her offer, asking the opposition to hold off on a call for impeachment. The opposition, however, immediately cried foul, deeming her offer disingenuous and accusing her of trying to undermine the impeachment effort.

A protracted political crisis would leave South Korea in a weaker position to deal with domestic economic problems or the changing regional security environment. And it would do little to ease the sharp regional divisions in Korean politics. Park is a particularly controversial figure, as her father, former President Park Chung Hee, is equally revered as the founder of modern industrial Korea and reviled as a Japanese collaborator and dictator. Her paternal legacy has also served to harden the regional political differences that had been starting to break down, as can be seen vividly in electoral maps. And the embattled president's attempts to heal relations with Japan have been particularly divisive.

South Korea's economy has been closely tied to China's, while its security has been linked to its partnership with the United States. The slowing rate of economic growth in China and the decline in global shipping growth have hit South Korea hard. The South Korean economy was further rocked by scandals in its large conglomerates and by the massive recall of cellphones by national champion Samsung. But dealing with corporate and economic reform requires a focused hand at the best of times, which this clearly is not. On the security front, North Korea's steady progress toward developing viable nuclear-armed ballistic missiles is altering the regional power dynamic. China is growing more active in regional security, Japan is transforming from a passive to an active player, and there are open questions about the final shape of U.S. policy in Asia once the presidential transition is complete. With South Korea's military uncertain of the fate of the intelligence deals with Japan and uncertain of potential changes in U.S. force structures, there is a strong need for strategic guidance, a commodity that could be hard to find amid the political chaos.

Yet despite the problems, and with just over a year left in her term, Park has been looking for ways to stay in office. Exploiting the divisive politics in South Korea is one strategy. Not only is there strong competition between the Saenuri Party and opposition parties, but there are also differences between the main opposition Democratic Party and the minor opposition People's Party, both of which are saddled with intraparty factionalism. As the political scandal surrounding Park and her confidant Choi Soon Sil evolved, so did the positions of each of these factions. The People's Party supported calls for Park to resign, while the Democratic Party favored the appointment of a unity government, a solution in which power would be transferred to the prime minister but that would not necessarily require Park's immediate ouster. The Saenuri largely backed Park — or at least did not strongly support resignation.

But with growing street demonstrations, and refusal on the part of Park and her backers to concede any ground, the Democratic Party first came around to the People's Party position, calling for resignation. When the People's Party shifted and began calling for impeachment, the Democratic Party did as well. Elements within Saenuri also began pushing for resignation, and within the past few days, many of Park's strongest supporters have called for her to resign sometime next year as a way to avoid impeachment but ensure some continuity of government. Though on the surface Park's speech agreeing to follow parliament's wishes appears to signal her willingness to resign soon, it may actually be part of a strategy to help her cling to her presidency longer.

The opposition parties, which are 28 seats shy of the votes needed to push through an impeachment, are counting on elements within the Saenuri to support their cause. But Park's announcement has given the Saenuri leadership a reason to close ranks and try to prevent potential defectors from approving impeachment. If the opposition cannot garner the votes for impeachment, it will be forced to negotiate with Saenuri on a timeline and plan for Park's resignation, or simply remain intransigent. In the case of the former, the People's Party would likely seek to undermine any agreement that allows Park to remain in office any longer, further straining relations between the opposition parties. In the latter case, Park could claim that parliament's recommendations are unclear, giving her the opening to stay in office.

For each party, the issue may be less about Park specifically than about positioning for the next presidential election. The Saenuri Party (and its predecessor, the Grand National Party) have held the last two presidencies, and Park's unpopularity threatens their chances in the next election. They are considering nominating outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon as their candidate, but the timing of the election could affect his ability to campaign. His U.N. assignment does not expire until the end of the year, and if Park were to resign, elections would follow within 60 days. The main opposition Democratic Party has its own concerns about an early election, particularly given the divisions within the opposition ranks. The People's Party, a splinter from the main opposition party, gained enough seats in the April parliamentary election to leave the Democratic Party shy of a majority. The divisions among the opposition persist, and it is unlikely at the moment that they could agree on a candidate. While the People's Party would be satisfied with the role of parliamentary kingmaker, the Democratic Party has ambitions for the presidency.

If the Saenuri can close ranks, and the opposition remains divided, Park may be able to ride the swells of public discontent even longer. With its unclear leadership picture and persistent political gridlock, the government will have little ability to address South Korea's pressing economic and social problems or adjust with the region, where the United States is preparing for its own presidential transition and China is seeking to expand its role. South Korea, with contentious early elections some time next year, may find itself behind the curve.

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