South Korea's Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the December impeachment of President Park Guen Hye on March 10 over a massive influence-peddling scandal. The ruling follows months of political drama and corruption probes that have shaken the country's political class, bureaucracy and large conglomerates, including Samsung Group. It makes Park, the daughter of former strongman President Park Chung Hee, the first democratically elected South Korean president to be removed from office. (An unsuccessful impeachment attempt was made against then-President Roh Moo Hyun in 2004.) Park has now been stripped of all powers of the office, and she will lose immunity from criminal prosecution.
A new presidential election now must be held within 60 days, with the vote expected to take place before May 9. In the meantime, acting President Hwang Kyo Ahn will continue on in the interim post. Though some of Park's policy initiatives were kept intact over the past few months — including the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system — a prolonged leadership void is expected as the country remains preoccupied with the election and myriad domestic challenges, from growing security threats to diminishing economic prospects. The scandal also exposed deep divides along generational lines and over political ideology and foreign policy orientation, particularly over Park's conciliatory approach toward Japan and hard-line policy against North Korea.
Thus, the monthslong political impasse has come at a particularly challenging time for South Korea. On the security front, North Korea is making steady progress toward developing a viable arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while intensifying geopolitical competition between China and Japan has put Seoul in a difficult position. In response, Seoul has sought to strengthen its alliance with the United States, including through the deployment of THAAD. But the move exposed the South Korean economy to Chinese retaliation. Meanwhile, amid deepening public divides over relations with Japan, Seoul has been struggling to sustain U.S.-generated momentum toward a trilateral alliance with Washington and Tokyo. For the immediate future, the primary focus will be on repairing the damage done by the Park scandal to the South Korean economy, which relies heavily on large conglomerates and was already struggling with diminishing growth potential, plummeting private consumption and a poor labor market.
Each of these challenges will shape the national debates ahead of the upcoming election — the campaign for which has been in full swing since well before the court ruling — and will be inherited by the next leader. In fact, the political crisis may substantially reshape the South Korean political landscape, which has been dominated by the conservative camp for more than a decade. In the past, conservatives with the Saenuri Party (rebranded last month as the Liberty Korea Party) have repeatedly been able to rally around a single presidential candidate and ride them to victory, while progressive voters have routinely split among rival candidates.
With Park's scandal souring the public image of the conservatives and sowing divisions in their camp, balance is increasingly tilting in favor of the progressives, raising the prospect of reorientation of some of Seoul's strategic initiatives. Among the hopefuls to replace Park, several have staked out campaign positions that promise to challenge some aspects of the disgraced president's legacy. Most notable, opposition lawmaker Moon Jae In, who has dominated presidential opinion polls since New Year's, has based his campaign on reconsidering the THAAD deployment, softening the approach to North Korea and reversing the detente with Japan.
Moon has recently eased his tone on THAAD, however. And as threats from North Korea grow, Seoul may find itself with little option but to further tighten its security alliance with the United States. But at the same time, electoral realities will lead candidates to stake out diverging positions on North Korea, the diplomatic feud with China — Seoul's top trading partner — and relations with Japan. Though Seoul's eventual positions have yet to be decided, and though the government's foremost focus will be on economic recovery — from continued chaebol reforms to boosting consumption — the splits in security positions demonstrate how the scandal in Northeast Asia's middle power could affect the broader regional balance.