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:
- Park Unraveling VIII: Political Reshuffling on the Right
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling VII: The Impeachment Bill and Park’s Response
- South Korea's Park Geun-hye Impeached: What's Next? (video)
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling VI: Endgame
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling V: Playing for Time
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling IV: The Prosecutors’ Statement
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling III: The Politics
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling II: The Issues
- Park Geun-hye Unraveling I: Polls and Timeline