Can the Korean Peninsula Survive Seoul's Presidential Crisis?

Petty Officer 3rd Class Hyun-gili Shin guards USS Paul Hamilton in Mokpo, Republic of Korea. Flickr/U.S. Navy photo

This is a bad time for Seoul to be facing so much instability.

Although Moon formally backs the South Korean alliance with America, he has called for “balanced diplomacy” with the United States and China; many opposition activists oppose deployment of the anti-missile THAAD system. Moon also complained that sanctions won’t end North Korea’s nuclear program, though UN and U.S. measures imposed in recent years would make it difficult for a new South Korean government to restart anything like the gentler “Sunshine Policy” of yore. Moreover, Pyongyang’s continuing nuclear developments have hardened popular opinion against the North’s Kim dynasty. The other potential opposition candidates are thought to generally share this perspective.

In practice, even when strong critics of the United States, such as opposition lawyer turned president Roh Moo-hyun, for whom Moon was chief of staff, are elected, they tend to reaffirm the trans-Pacific military tie. After all, most South Koreans prefer to save money by having Americans pay for their defense. All but the most naïve realize they need some form of protection against the North.

If development of future policy must necessarily remain in abeyance, maintenance of the peace will remain the first priority. The fact that the United States, in the midst of its own power transition, must worry about the ROK’s security is a reminder of the cost of alliances that are antiquated, even “obsolete,” to use the president-elect’s term. Washington should have long ago turned over responsibility for South Korea’s defense to the South Koreans. Failing to do so has left America entangled and at risk while the South sorts out its political mess.

None of the ROK’s democratically elected presidents, dating back to 1987, have been able to retire without controversy. But Park is the first who may be forced from office prematurely. At this time her future matters only to her, but how and when her successor is chosen matters greatly to her countrymen—and, ultimately, to Americans. Incoming president Donald Trump should follow his instincts and reconsider an alliance which makes the United States hostage to a shaman’s ministrations in Seoul.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.

Image: Petty Officer 3rd Class Hyun-gili Shin guards USS Paul Hamilton in Mokpo, Republic of Korea. Flickr/U.S. Navy photo