South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s removal from office, which is likely to bring about a significant change in the country’s political landscape, begs the question of whether it will affect the U.S.-South Korea joint efforts against North Korea.
Following months of massive protests by millions of people demanding her ouster, Park left office last week after South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach her over an influence peddling scandal that has rattled the nation’s political and business elite.
A presidential election is scheduled for early May. Moon Jae-in from the opposition Democratic Party, who lost to Park in 2012, is likely to secure the top spot, opinion polls suggest. Unlike the past two conservative presidents, Moon, a human rights lawyer and former chief of staff to left-leaning President Roh Moo-hyun, advocates rapprochement and cooperation with Pyongyang.
The night before the court removed the country’s first female leader, Moon said the alliance with Washington is “a pillar of our diplomacy,” but added that South Korea should learn to “say ‘no’ to the Americans,” according to The New York Times.
Possible shift to opposition
Amid speculation that the possible shift to a liberal government in South Korea may soften the country’s posture on the North, four former U.S. ambassadors to South Korea told VOA the relations between the two allies likely will remain on compatible footing, no matter who wins the upcoming election.
Mark Lippert, who served as ambassador to Seoul until mid-January, said the U.S.-South Korea alliance has always been evolving and that the two countries were able to mitigate and manage disputes as they occurred.
“The past has been one where even when we have had disagreements, we managed to drive the alliance forward in a very positive and strong manner,” said Lippert, who served during Barack Obama’s second term in office. “And that gives me great hope and confidence to the future.”
Thomas Hubbard, who served from 2001 to 2004 during the George W. Bush administration, said the alliance is strong enough to endure some changes.
“For the last 10 years of so, we’ve pursued a remarkably united approach to North Korea, and I see no reason why that would have to change with a new Korean government,” he said.
Alliance likely to remain intact
Kathleen Stephens, who served as ambassador during the first Obama term, said whoever comes to power next in Seoul is going to have to deal with a far more dangerous and stubborn North Korea.
“The most immediate challenge is, of course, the state of determination of North Korea under Kim Jong Un to consolidate its nuclear weapons and missile technology to include new and very dangerous capabilities,” said Stephens, who is now a William J. Perry Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“I think the policy approaches [toward North Korea] are not clear and are going to require a good deal of deep consultation between Washington and Seoul and indeed with other partners in the region.”
Alexander Vershbow, who spent three years in South Korea from 2005 to 2008, cautioned that questions may arise over the foreign policy decisions of former President Park, including the ongoing deployment of the U.S. missile defense system THAAD to South Korea.
“It’s possible that some of the candidates may question the THAAD decision itself,” said Vershbow, who is currently with the Atlantic Council. “I think that would be unfortunate because it is an appropriate response to the growing missile threat posed by North Korea.”
The deployment drew strong domestic opposition as well as protests from China, which contends that the system’s advanced radar will penetrate into its territory. The first elements of the defensive shield arrived last week, and the system could be operational as early as April.
North Korean factor
North Korea’s state media have followed Park’s impeachment closely since the corruption scandal surfaced in late October. Some experts have warned that North Korea could take advantage of South Korea’s political uncertainties.
Dennis Wilder, a former senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, told VOA Pyongyang might try to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.
“The North Koreans will take advantage of any kind of weakness in the South to try and put pressure on the people of South Korea and the government of South Korea,” said Wilder, who is now a Georgetown University professor. “I am sure the North Koreans would like to see the new THAAD system removed from South Korea, they would want to see the joint military exercises reduced.”
Shortly after Park was ousted, the U.S. reaffirmed its commitment to its longstanding ally.
“The U.S.-ROK alliance will continue to be a linchpin of regional stability and security, and we will continue to meet our alliance commitments, especially with respect to defending against the threat from North Korea,” U.S. State Department Acting Spokesperson Mark Toner said.