South Korea will elect a new president on May 9 – not because the incumbent has served a full term, but because she was impeached, stripped of her powers and finally forced from office by the country’s highest court.
Park Geun-hye, now an ordinary citizen, faces prosecution and could well go to jail in a bribery scandal that also involves Samsung, one of the country’s biggest corporate names. Already on trial is Park’s close friend, Choi Soon-sil, accused of a string of corruption offences, and Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung, charged with paying Choi $36 million in bribes to gain political favours, including spending $1 million to buy her daughter a horse.
The fall of Park and Choi followed weeks of ever-growing, but non-violent, protests in the capital, Seoul, culminating in a demonstration that drew one and a half million people. All this is eyebrow-raising enough, but what is extraordinary is that these political and judicial upheavals are taking place within artillery-shell range of one of the most paranoid and dangerous regimes on earth.
While South Korea has been bringing about political change by peaceful and democratic means, on the other side of the demilitarised zone that divides the Korean peninsula Kim Jong-un’s dynastic dictatorship is openly seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them as far as the American mainland. It is a regime that is prepared to starve its own people, and to have the president’s estranged half-brother murdered in a Malaysian airport.
Little surprise, given the constant threat from the north, that for decades South Korea leaned towards authoritarianism under a succession of military leaders. Few recall that at the end of the Korean War it was the North that was economically stronger: how that has changed. With wealth the South has gained the confidence to embrace pluralism, though recent events show that the relationship between money and power remains insufficiently regulated.
South Korea’s chaebol, or corporate conglomerates, have long considered themselves to be the bringers of prosperity, and therefore entitled to different treatment than the rest. That may change as a result of the latest scandal. There are also efforts to curtail the powers of the presidency and enhance the role of the prime minister. This would be an ironic outcome for North Korea, which reviled the right-wing Park, since her successor as president appears likely to be the more left-wing and conciliatory Moon Jae-in.
It is not just the northern neighbour that any South Korean has to consider, however. Even more extraordinary is that the country has the confidence and calmness to oust its president when its principal ally and guarantor of its security, the United States, has just elected probably the least qualified and most unpredictable leader in its history.
Donald Trump has made it known that Seoul should pay more for its own security, while his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, announcing that the era of ‘strategic patience’ has ended, has hinted that military action against North Korea is possible. This appeared aimed at spurring China to put more pressure on Pyongyang, especially since it was followed by Trump’s characteristic manner of outlining policy, a Twitter message: ‘North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been ‘playing’ the United States for years. China has done little to help!’
The White House does not appear to understand that China will never contemplate a change of regime in North Korea, since the outcome would be turmoil and a probable flood of refugees on to its territory. Even worse, it could result in a unified, Western-leaning Korea on its border, with American nuclear weapons. In Beijing’s eyes, a nuclear-armed North Korea is by far the lesser evil.
South Korea has learned to live with a belligerent (though not irrational, argues a writer in this issue) neighbour next door, but now it has to cope as well with a protector whose approach could be described as clumsy at best. It is a nation that deserves better.