Park Unraveling IX: Ban Out

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Inbok Rhee (UCSD)

February 3, 2017 9:15 AM

With Ban Ki Moon dropping out of the South Korean presidential race, the likelihood that we will have a pro-engagement South Korean president in the next six months just went up. Ban cited fake news as the culprit, coming in the form of personal attacks about bribery cases involving his brother and nephew and a month-old story—unproven—that he himself took bribes while foreign minister. The likely result given the inclinations of the American administration: more conflict between Washington and Seoul, with China and North Korea reaping the gains.   

At least with respect to Korea, things had at least been going OK. Everyone had been expecting a North Korean surprise, but the only thing we have seen so far is subtle, hard to counter, but also not demanding of an immediate response: North Korea has restarted Yongbyon after a pause for reprocessing that no doubt yielded up additional fissile material. The Trump administration is clearly in “assurance” mode, providing a calming readout on the President’s call with acting President Hwang and choosing Korea for Secretary of Defense Mattis’ first overseas trip. The readouts from the Mattis visit also had a strong “business as usual” tone, assuring on the alliance and underlining the deterrent. Mattis was also subtle on THAAD, noting correctly that the only reason it is needed is North Korea, sending the appropriate message to Beijing.   

But as the administration formally launches its North Korea policy review and our friends start to testify at early hearings on the issue, South Korean politics continue to generate uncertainties. RealMeter did a poll sponsored by Joongang Ilbo and JTBC two days ago and here is the current pecking order in the polls:

  • Moon Jae-in: 26.1%
  • Hwang Kyo-ahn: 12.1%
  • Ahn Hee-chung: 11.1%
  • Lee Jae-myung: 9.9%
  • Ahn Chul-soo: 9.3%
  • Yoo Seung-min: 4.3%

Both Joongang and Maeil did additional polling asking the former Ban supporters for whom they will vote now that Ban is out of the race (the findings from the two surveys are in parentheses). The big beneficiary is the acting president:

  • Hwang Kyo-ahn (20.3%, 20.4%)
  • Yoo Seung-min (12.8%, 10.9%)
  • Moon Jae-in (10.4%, 11.1%)
  • Ahn Chul-soo (9.4%, 9.1%)
  • Ahn Hee-chung (6.1%, 7.6%)

Hwang has not actually tipped his hand, however, and did not comment on whether he was intending to run when he was asked by a number of reporters. And as the numbers suggest, Moon is still in command even if votes are reallocated as the polls suggest. But the reaction was swift to the possibility as all parties except for the Saenuri immediately criticized Hwang for not being clear about his intentions. The fear is palpable on both sides of the aisle: that an interim president would use (or be seen as using) Park’s misfortune to his own advantage. Even though the right has few other reasonable options, there is concern about a possible backlash against what might be seen as a power grab. If Hwang does run, we will be in the realm of “acting acting” or “interim interim.” Yoo Il-ho, the current Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, would become the new Acting President. His new official title will then include four hats: Acting President, Acting Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, and Minister of Finance. This would not be good for any of those portfolios.

The longer run issue is how a Trump presidency will work with the return of left-of-center politics in Seoul. The views of the candidates are not all of a piece (a summary of their views here [in Korean]). Moon has stiffened his spine on THAAD, holding to a conditional approach to deployment to mollify China: if progress is made on North Korea, then THAAD becomes unnecessary. But Moon has repeatedly said that his policy toward the North would be in line with the approach of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and would include a reopening of Kaesong. He has also promised to resume OPCON transfer, something that may actually be appealing to Trump given his view of the alliances. Lee Jae-myung also put resumption of KIC as one of his commitments and added in repeal of the 5.24 sanctions imposed in the wake of the Cheonan: more money for the North! And in a prescient twist, Lee Jae-myung has argued for decreasing SMA cost sharing for US forces in Korea. That would be interesting. Ahn Hee-chung’s line is engagement first, denuclearization later. Among the plausible opposition candidates, only Ahn Chul-soo insisted that he will continue the sanctions although noting that they would be a prelude to talks.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, as well as Yoo Seung-min and Nam Kyung-pil have all stated that they will continue the North Korea policies of Lee Myung-bak and Park and presumably for the right that is one of the appeals.

But at the moment at least, the odds for the opposition are high. The potential for daylight between the allies provides opportunities for mischief if China refuses to cooperate and North Korea decides to test the new American president. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to me, in part because it could have adverse effect on the election from Pyongyang’s perspective. But it would not be out of character.

Previous posts on the Park-Choi scandal:


Edward Dong

It was appropriate to place the end of the Ban Ki Moon presidential bid into the context of the unraveling of Park Geun-hye.  I think it also appropriate to place this in the context of the unraveling of the Hillary Clinton presidential bid.  The reason is that Ban in many ways would have been a good fit for a Hillary presidency.  Ban's chief qualifications for the job were his experience as Korea's top diplomat and his accomplishments as UN Secretary General.  The latter would have included a role in the conclusion of the Paris Climate Agreement, which of course involved the U.S. and China as key moving forces.  That the Green Climate Fund is headquartered in Korea is a manifestation of Ban's efforts.  For her part, Hillary was a popular visitor, with Ehwa folks excited that she was a graduate of the Ehwa equivalent in America, and her seeming good touch with Korean audiences, especially younger and female ones.  Moreover, she carried the Obama legacy of the international community effort on initiatives like the Paris accord, in which Korea could also claim some leadership role.  

It remained unclear, however, whether Ban was Trump's preferred Korean president (he may not have one).  GOP administrations have from time to time tried to signal support for a presidential candidate, successfully for Roh Tae Woo, not successfully for Lee Hoi Chang, and there was always a whiff of Democratic Party activist support for Kim Dae Jung but never put to the test.

What this may set up is a future of competitive toadyism (sadae juyi -- bowing to the giant thought), or so it will be portrayed.  With Park Geun-hye's unraveling, there is also the demise of the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) and the far more informal but no less ineffective Middle Power grouping of Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, Korea, and Australia (MITKA) as ideas that advanced Korea's international role that was not tied to the alliance with the U.S., the trilateral alliance that the U.S. was seeking to carve out including Japan, the Six Party Talks, and the inter-Korean dialogue.

With Trump in the White House, the alliance has been reaffirmed by the Mattis reassurance trip, but the U.S.-ROK relationship had expanded beyond just the alliance and its target, North Korea, and included a whole infrastructure of other things at work, not the least of which is KORUS.  But the Ross-Navarro "scoring" paper talked of KORUS in disparaging terms, claiming that the deficit has led to 100,000 American jobs lost (although I don't know any American companies closing a factory at home and opening in Korea, to face fierce and nationalistic unions).  So what is a conservative, especially someone like Hwang, to do?  Does he become a toadyist to a Trump administration to win favor?  This will surely have huge blowback from a Korean electorate that does not want a collusive arrangement with the chaebol to sacrifice the interests of the Korean people on the altar of good relations to the voracious, transactional demands of a Trump administration.

On the other side of the ledger, of course, China has overplayed its hand and become a bully in its own right because of THAAD.  Sharply reducing tourism and Hallyu and cosmetic exports, among other things, is not the way of a "strategic partner" -- which, of course, signals the unraveling of another Park Geun-hye idea -- that of forging a U.S.-China-Korea path towards dealing with North Korea (which the Americans did not like because we favor U.S.-Japan-Korea and which the Chinese complained did not get the Americans to do their part, which is to have a negotiation with the North while China cooperated with the ROK to "restrain" the DPRK).  In these circumstances, Moon is in no position to toady to Trump since this would substantally undercut his support from his base.  But neither can Moon easily be so friendly to a China that is acting the classic role of the "dae-nom" (giant monster and the etymological origin of sadae juyi) -- something that the conservatives will not fail to mention.

So, this is not just the unraveling of Park Geun-hye, but also the unraveling of assumptions that Koreans and Americans jointly and severally have held.  Which bodes for interesting times.

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