In an unsurprising move, the courts upheld Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment. The panel of judges, appointed mainly by Geun-Hye or former president Lee Myung-bak, unanimously voted to uphold the impeachment of the first female president. The government will move forward with elections in early May to determine a new president. The president will be looked at optimistically, but will have a short leash. A super majority of South Koreans supported Geun-Hye’s impeachment and a majority want structural reform to curb unemployment and corruption. Broadly, the next South Korean president will have a multitude of issues to deal with moving forward: unemployment, corruption, environmental degradation, etc. In spite of these issues, I believe foreign policy and specifically relations with the North should be at the top of the agenda. Ultimately, the next president should be more forceful and maintain a hawkish policy towards the North.
I think South Korea must not forget the growing military power and the vehement hatred the North has towards the South. The North is still expanding its nuclear arsenal and escalating its provocations. According to recent ballistic missile tests, Pyongyang has the capability to overpower the missile defense systems currently deployed in the South, yet the controversial implementation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is still months away. A more critical policy appears rational to better engage with the situation and set the stage for thwarting any further action towards the North. Furthermore, despite recent statements of support from Washington, Seoul is justifiably wary of the Trump administration’s commitment to the region. The Trump administration already has a record of publicly flip flopping on issues—the South should not sit idly by hoping Trump will maintain control if tensions escalate.
Additionally, a more accommodating policy towards the North is wrong because it is ineffective. Under liberal South Korean presidents, South Korea has experimented with more open and less hostile dialogue with the North. Collectively known as the Sunshine Policy, the South struck a conciliatory tone and refrained from criticizing the grotesque human rights record of the North. In spite of the idealistic attempts, the North continued to spew hateful propaganda and continued to build up their military arsenal.
The premise behind this policy is misguided because it assumes too much out of the North. The premise is this: by having a more engaging dialogue we (the South) will have a better chance of changing the North for the better. The North is not interested in change. The sultanistic regime is set on maintaining the status quo because it allows them to have control. The North won’t change on its own, also, because positive change will require a system change; clearly, the system works for the handful of elites in power and as such, they have no interest in changing.
The Sunshine policy also soured relations between the US and South Korea. While the US is going through an immense amount of change and its policy is ever changing, the South should still be cautious of actions that will cause critical disdain from the US. If Trump is able to latch onto a reason to disengage from this chaotic situation, he will likely seize it. As such, the next president should have perspective when he/she is making his/her next moves on the fate of relations between the North and the South.
The next South Korean president will have plenty of issues to deal with moving forward and while these are pressing, the fate of relations between the North is more important. It is most important because it represents the strongest threat to national security. If the South wants to remain relatively safe, it must keep the North at the top of its list. Moreover, the South must maintain a hawkish policy because a less hawkish policy is ineffective and this policy will help maintain amicable relations with the United States.