The Buzz

A Political Earthquake in Seoul and Its Repercussions for U.S. Policy

The impending change of administration in Washington and the presidential impeachment roiling Seoul has put relations between the United States and South Korea in a tough spot. The pressures felt by both countries, which include North Korea’s growing nuclear threat and Beijing’s efforts to expand its sphere of influence, make the relationship all the more vital to the historical allies.

Amid those tensions, the political turmoil in Seoul is amplifying fear and anger toward the status quo. As new prospective leaders in Seoul jockey for position, they may work to reverse current South Korean policies on North Korea and China that were made in close cooperation with Washington.

Impeachment of President Park Geun-hye would likely lead to a shift in policy in Seoul to better align with opposition parties’ views that have pushed for economic cooperation with the North, closer ties with Beijing and a relative distancing from Japan. Three key decisions by the Park administration also would likely come under scrutiny—the closure of an industrial complex along the military demarcation line with North Korea, the deployment of an anti-missile defense battery by the U.S., and a military information-sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan. To formulate a path forward with South Korea, the United States needs to understand the causes and implications of these policy choices.

A change in South Korean policy on the aforementioned issues would pose serious challenges to the new administration in Washington for some time to come, just as the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump and its new policies would do to policymakers in Seoul. Despite the formidable task of bridging the possible gap, one thing is clear—the two administrations will have to cooperate for four years or more. Both countries need sophisticated and careful synchronization of policy across the Pacific more than ever.

Three Key Decisions in Question

The existing South Korean policies most likely to be challenged by the new South Korean administration carry weight for the United States because they represent tight U.S.-South Korean cooperation regarding U.S. policy toward North Korea. The Obama administration’s North Korea policy focused on containment with periodical addition of pressure on North Korea and emphasis on the proactive role of China. There are signs that the Trump administration might want to bring more pressure to bear on North Korea and China. Rex Tillerson, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, said in his confirmation hearing: “The U.S. must compel China to crack down on North Korea.”

The three Park decisions likely to be reconsidered by an incoming South Korean administration were made in response to North Korean nuclear and missile tests in order to defend against—and put more pressure on—North Korea. However, the abrupt and secretive manner in which those decisions were made has already generated aggressive responses from opposition parties. Last February, South Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex to retaliate against North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. The complex, an industrial park jointly run by both countries, provided economic benefits to South Korean companies as well as to North Korea, and the opposition blasted the shutdown as “ineffective and rash.” The second decision, also made in February, was announced in July by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense and the U.S. Forces in Korea—a U.S. battery of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles would be deployed in South Korea. More recently, the opposition has requested postponement of THAAD implementation until the next South Korean administration is in place. Lastly, in October, South Korea and Japan signed a General Security of Military Information Agreement that allows both countries to exchange classified military information. The agreement was reached when President Park was on the verge of impeachment despite strong resistance from opposition parties. The agreement angered the opposition leaders so much that they threatened to dismiss or impeach the defense minister.