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Michael Auslin: South Korea’s Political Crisis Could Become Regional

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This is a time of extreme uncertainty on the Korean peninsula, and the next months could see dangerous instability.

Michael Auslin writes: After weeks of massive public protests in downtown Seoul of up to one million people, South Korea’s parliament decisively impeached President Park Geun-hye last Friday. The vote now propels South Korea into the next phase of its political crisis, which will culminate when the nation’s Constitutional Court ratifies or rejects the impeachment vote, within six months. Initially indicating during the run-up to the vote that she would resign if impeached, Park apparently has chosen to fight the parliament’s vote.

South Korean Prime Minister and the acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn bows after releasing a statement to the nation at the Goverment Complex in Seoul, South Korea, December 9, 2016.

South Korean Prime Minister and the acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn bows after releasing a statement to the nation at the Goverment Complex in Seoul, South Korea, December 9, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji.

According to South Korean law, Park is now removed from power, pending the court decision. The Prime 514fnemhevl-_sl250_Minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, now becomes acting president. Yet Hwang is seen as a loyal Park subordinate, and is himself unpopular with the protesters and Korea’s opposition parties.

[Order Michael Auslin’s book “The End of the Asian Century: War, Stagnation, and the Risks to the World’s Most Dynamic Region” from Amazon.com]

This is a time of extreme uncertainty on the Korean peninsula, and the next months could see dangerous instability. Most importantly, North Korea may try to take advantage of the crisis, possibly by testing the caretaker president. An attack on South Korean territory or military facilities, as happened back in 2010, could result in a full armed conflict, if the caretaker government wants to show its power. Alternately, a lack of response would further embolden the North.

[Read the full story here, at RealClearDefense]

A missile test could also spark a South Korean response, especially if one goes wrong. While they may see the end of their term looming, those in the Obama administration should be prepared for a crisis in their last six weeks in power; just as importantly, the incoming Trump team needs a policy immediately, for they may face an alliance challenge soon after taking power. Read the rest of this entry »

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye Struggles to Avoid Impeachment

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SEOUL (AP) — South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Tuesday that she will resign — if parliament arranges the technical details — in her latest attempt to fend off impeachment efforts and massive street protests amid prosecution claims that a corrupt confidante wielded government power from the shadows.

“If the ruling and opposition parties discuss and come up with a plan to reduce the confusion in state affairs and ensure a safe transfer of governments, I will step down from the presidential position under that schedule and by processes stated in law.”

— South Korean President Park Geun-hye

Opponents immediately called Park’s conditional resignation offer a stalling tactic, and analysts said her steadfast denial that she has done anything wrong could embolden her enemies. The country’s largest opposition party, the Minjoo Party, said it would not let Park’s “ploy to avoid impeachment” interfere with a planned vote on impeachment on Friday.

“There is no possibility that the opposition parties will accept her offer; not when the public is this angry. She apparently wanted to buy more time, but in the end she might have hastened the end of her presidency.”

— Yul Shin, a politics professor at Seoul’s Myongji University

Park, who did not take questions from reporters after her live address to the nation, said she will “leave the matters about my fate, including the shortening of my presidential term, to be decided by the National Assembly,” referring to parliament.

[ALSO SEE – South Korean president’s office explains Viagra purchase]

“If the ruling and opposition parties discuss and come up with a plan to reduce the confusion in state affairs and ensure a safe transfer of governments, I will step down from the presidential position under that schedule and by processes stated in law,” she said.

How exactly this might play out is still unclear. But some saw Park’s speech as a clear effort to avoid leaving office, despite the resignation language. Read the rest of this entry »


A Presidential Scandal Transfixes South Korea 

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Park Geun-hye faces calls for impeachment after a friend was indicted and the president was accused of giving her access to government documents.

Now, one friendship Ms. Park does have has imperiled her presidency.

The friend, the daughter of a cult leader who once claimed to speak with Ms. Park’s murdered mother, sought to enrich herself through ties to the presidential office, South Korean prosecutors have alleged in an extortion indictment. The friend also received access to classified presidential policy documents, they say.

The snowballing political drama is paralyzing the government of South Korea, a close U.S. ally, at a time when the Obama administration considers North Korea and its increasingly aggressive nuclear strategy to be the top national security priority for the next administration.

Prosecution documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal say that foundations set up by the president’s friend, a 60-year-old woman named Choi Soon-sil, allegedly used her presidential ties to wrest millions of dollars in donations from Korean conglomerates. Prosecutors have raided most of South Korea’s biggest business groupsseeking evidence. Some of the money, prosecutors believe, went to pay for Ms. Choi’s affluent lifestyle and her daughter’s equestrian aspirations.

Ms. Park, second from left, in 1975 with Choi Tae-min, right, a religious leader and mystic who claimed to commune with Ms. Park’s assassinated mother.

Ms. Park, second from left, in 1975 with Choi Tae-min, right, a religious leader and mystic who claimed to commune with Ms. Park’s assassinated mother. Photo: Yonhap

A political scandal linking South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye to a charismatic cult leader and his daughter has prompted hundreds of thousands to demonstrate in the streets. The Wall Street Journal looks at how she got there. Photo: AP

Both Ms. Park and Ms. Choi deny the accusations. The president, in a tearful televised statement this month, disputed colorful reports in the Korean press that include shamanistic rituals supposedly held in the presidential office. Such claims are a “house of fantasy,” Ms. Park’s lawyer said.

[Read the full story here, at WSJ]

The denials haven’t stemmed a clamor for her resignation. Five mass rallies in five weeks have demanded the president’s ouster, with organizers estimating over a million protesters gathered in Seoul on Saturday. In surveys, Ms. Park’s approval rating has sunk to 4%. One poll showed that 80% of South Koreans favor impeaching her.

Choi Soon-sil, left, who is at the heart of a political scandal engulfing Ms. Park, was arrested in Seoul this month.

Choi Soon-sil, left, who is at the heart of a political scandal engulfing Ms. Park, was arrested in Seoul this month. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Opposition parties say they will push for an impeachment vote by early December if Ms. Park doesn’t step down. She has given no indication she will, though she has offered to share power with a new prime minister suggested by the opposition.

Even if she survives the tumult, Ms. Park’s diminished political authority presents risks for the U.S. and an early foreign-policy challenge for President-elect Donald Trump. The U.S. relies on close ties with Seoul to manage dangers presented by a bellicose North Korea. The U.S. has around 28,500 troops based in South Korea.

South Korean protesters calling for the resignation of Ms. Park held candles during a rally in Seoul on Nov. 19.

South Korean protesters calling for the resignation of Ms. Park held candles during a rally in Seoul on Nov. 19. Photo: AP

Ms. Park wants to deploy a sophisticated U.S. missile system next year to defend against North Korea’s advancing nuclear-weapons program. Opposition leaders, by contrast, put priority on closer ties with China, which strongly disapproves of the missile-shield idea, at a time when other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia are tilting toward Beijing. Ms. Park’s domestic opponents also seek to break with Washington by rolling back the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang. Read the rest of this entry »


Meanwhile, in South Korea: Hundreds of Thousands Rally to Demand Park’s Ouster 

Protesters march toward presidential house after a rally calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in Seoul, South Korea, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Seoul's streets on Saturday demanding the resignation of Park amid an explosive political scandal, in what may be South Korea's largest protest since it shook off dictatorship three decades ago. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Seoul’s streets on Saturday demanding the resignation of Park amid an explosive political scandal, in what may be South Korea’s largest protest in three decades. 

SEOUL (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people flooded Seoul’s streets on Saturday demanding the resignation of President Park Geun-hye amid an explosive political scandal, in what may be South Korea’s largest protest since it shook off dictatorship three decades ago.

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“Park’s presidency has been shaken by suspicion that she let a shadowy longtime confidante manipulate power from behind the scenes. Protest organizers estimated the crowd at 1 million.”

Police said about 260,000 people turned out for the latest mass rally against Park, whose presidency has been shaken by suspicion that she let a shadowy longtime confidante manipulate power from behind the scenes. Protest organizers estimated the crowd at 1 million.

“People said it was a bad idea to bring my kids here, but I want them to remember today…and learn that democracies are built on participation.”

Waving banners and signs, a sea of demonstrators jammed streets stretching about a kilometer from City Hall to a large square in front of an old palace gate for several hours, roaring and applauding to speeches calling for Park’s ouster.

“In addition to allegedly manipulating power, the president’s confidante, Choi Soon Sil, is also suspected of exploiting her presidential ties to bully companies into donating tens of millions of dollars to foundations she controlled.”

Protesters also marched on a road in front of the palace gate and near the Blue House, the mountainside presidential office and residence, carrying candles, blowing horns and banging drums, while shouting “Park Geun-hye, resign!”

[Read the full story here, at The Japan News]

Bae Dong San, a 45-year-old man, said Park’s government has “worsened the living conditions of workers, completely messed up state governance and monopolized state affairs with her secret inner circle.”

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“It feels much better to shout together with many other people.”

— Bae Dong San, a 45-year-old protester

“It feels much better to shout together with many other people,” he said.

Despite rising public anger, opposition parties have yet to seriously push for Park’s resignation or impeachment over fears of triggering a backlash from conservative voters and negatively impacting next year’s presidential election. However, they have threatened to campaign for Park’s resignation if she doesn’t distance herself from state affairs.

“I have never been interested in politics and I don’t even have a TV at home…but unbelievable things have been happening and I came out today because I didn’t want to feel defeated as a South Korean citizen.”

— Cho Jong-gyu, who took a five-hour bus ride to participate in the rally

The protest on Saturday was the largest in the capital since June 10, 2008, when police said 80,000 people took part in a candlelight vigil denouncing the government’s decision to resume U.S. beef imports amid mad cow fears. Organizers estimated that crowd at 700,000. In the summer of 1987, millions rallied in Seoul and other cities for weeks before the then-military government caved in to demands for free presidential elections.

Train and express bus tickets to Seoul were difficult to get from some areas Friday evening and Saturday morning, with the protest reportedly drawing tens of thousands of people from other cities.

“I have never been interested in politics and I don’t even have a TV at home … but unbelievable things have been happening and I came out today because I didn’t want to feel defeated as a South Korean citizen,” said Cho Jong-gyu, who took a five-hour bus ride from the small southern island of Geoje to participate in the rally, where he quietly held a cardboard sign calling for Park to resign. Read the rest of this entry »


Protests in South Korea: Prosecutors to Question President Park

Seoul prosecutors are set to question South Korean President Park Geun-hye early this week for her role in the political corruption scandal involving an informal adviser.

It follows a second weekend of mass protests that saw hundreds of thousands of demonstrators cram city streets demanding her resignation.

Park has admitted sharing classified documents with close friend and informal adviser Choi Soon-sil. Read the rest of this entry »