There is huge relief in South Korea that the immediate threat of war with the North has receded. But, writes Duncan Bartlett,  the country’s democracy is fragile and all its living former leaders are discredited or in jail

When wars cease, countries often find they face problems which have been obscured beneath the smoke of battle. For South Korea – which is still technically at war with the North – the focus this year has been on building a path to peace. Leaders of the divided nations have met and embraced. On President Trump’s executive order, war games with the North have been halted. But now, South Korea’s domestic challenges are emerging as pressing issues that need to be addressed.

For a start, South Korea faces many economic struggles. Even though the country is home to world-beating companies such as Samsung, Hyundai and Kia Motors, it has one of the lowest productivity levels of any developed OECD economy. Many people work gruellingly long hours for little reward. There is limited job security and a substantial gender wage gap. Widespread poverty among older people is particularly distressing, and a warning to other Asian countries with ageing populations.

Moon’s promise

When President Moon Jae-in was elected just over a year ago, he pledged a series of reforms designed to tackle these issues. His goal is to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are shared more equitably. To its credit, since the civil war, South Korea has transformed itself into one of the richest countries in Asia, in stark contrast to the impoverished north. Yet its economic growth has often coincided with political turmoil.

All four former South Korean presidents who are still alive have been charged with criminal offences or convicted. Recently,Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined millions of dollars for bribery and abuse of power.

South Korea’s economic growth has often coincided with political turmoil

Some see this as the high cost of a war upon corruption and a victory for the power of the people. Resentment towards President Park was expressed through peaceful candlelight vigils. Agathe L’Homme from the Economist Intelligence Unit says ‘the successful impeachment of a president is a remarkable achievement for a young democracy’.

Other commentators are alarmed at the tendency for former leaders to end up in prison – usually once their political rivals have moved into the presidential Blue House. ‘It undermines confidence in the establishment,’ one diplomat told me privately. ‘It feels like the system can’t function properly.’

Popular for now

Yet President Moon is riding a wave of popularity. His party did well in local elections in June, as voters showed appreciation for his impressive diplomatic efforts in reaching out to the North and leading Kim Jong-un to promise denuclearisation.

June’s elections also showed that the opposition was too weak to put up much of a fight, despite misgivings about President Moon’s approach to the North. Professor Hae-won Jun from the Korean National Diplomatic Academy says the impeachment and imprisonment of Ms Park ‘traumatised’ her former conservative supporters and there is little motive for President Moon to pardon his predecessor or release her from jail.

‘The Conservative identity is very much about the way they see their relationship with America and issues of national security,’ says Professor Jun. Mr Trump’s announcement in Singapore that the joint military exercises would cease took South Korea’s leaders by surprise, creating a strain upon a complex alliance.

Changing priorities

Victor Cha, Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, believes that South Korea must accept a new approach towards foreign policy under President Trump.

‘The Americans want to take their forces out of East Asia because they don’t want any more soldiers to die in foreign wars. Perhaps Trump has a retrenchment agenda for Asia but he presents it under the guise of working towards peace. It’s difficult to challenge that because everybody wants peace,’ says Mr Cha.

South Korea faces economic struggles, despite being home to world-class companies such as Samsung and Hyundai
South Korea faces economic struggles, despite being home to world-class companies
such as Samsung and Hyundai

South Korean politics is strongly personality-based. Professor Jun says parties often lack a clear policy agenda and are driven by the quest for electability. ‘Until there is a more grounded structure to the political parties you will see a very limited institutional response to citizens’ demands for more accommodation,’ she says.

Powerful forces

Professor Jun also warns that the media is unregulated and holds considerable influence. ‘It’s like a shark mentality,’ she says. ‘Once they smell blood, there’s no stopping them.’

The impeachment and imprisonment of Park Geun-hye ‘traumatised’ her former conservative supporters

Another powerful force is the judiciary, which is able to pursue cases without much interference from parliament. Professor Woosik Moon from Seoul National University says: ‘In the West, the law is designed to protect people. In countries like South Korea and China, the law is there to control people. We produce so many “cheap” laws that people cannot keep them all. Is that really in the interest of the people?’

The volatile environment, created by the unregulated judiciary and media – alongside corruption and political turbulence – present threats to the stability of the state, according to Dr David Santoro from the Pacific Forum.

‘Democracy in South Korea is so fragile that it is not impossible to imagine its collapse and absorption into the North. Pyongyang may actively provoke that collapse,’ he says.

Fortunately, that alarming scenario – in which Korean reunification results in North Korea’s victory – is not the only outcome Dr Santoro has considered. He can also foresee a peaceful reunification, through which Seoul assumes leadership and integrates the North Korean economy with that of the South.

However, he concedes this would require the North Koreans to abandon two tenets of their ideology: Communism and juche, a trenchant form of self-sufficiency, which is central to their national identity.

For Dr Santoro, the best hope is for peaceful coexistence between two states with different outlooks. ‘The governments would need to treat each other as equals and trusted partners,’ he says.

Yet before the South Koreans put their trust in their former enemies in the North, they will need to rebuild faith in their own fractured institutions and alliances, despite repeated disappointments and broken promises.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC World Service presenter. He would like to thank Chatham House and the Henry Jackson Society for arranging access to experts on the Korean peninsula.


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