With the recent ouster of South Korean President Park Geun-Hye in a high profile corruption case, the nation's constitutional court unanimously voted for impeachment. The nation's first female president's reputation has likely been tarnished forever. The impeachment process was sparked last October by information regarding Park's close personal friend Choi-Soon Sil, the daughter of the late Church of Eternal Life cult leader Choi Tae-Min. The elder Choi acted as a mentor to Park after her father, former president Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Numerous news sources claimed that Choi had access to official government documents, and acted as a close confidant of Park, leading many to question whether the president was actually in charge of the country. Park later admitted her close ties to Choi and dismissed two of her top key staff as her approval ratings fell to 4%. She also fired her Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn, who was later re-imposed to the position during the impeachment proceedings. The scandal led to millions of people protesting in the streets of Seoul.
During and after the impeachment process, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-Ahn became the acting president. He will hold that position until snap presidential elections in May. Park's ruling conservative Liberty Korea Party (which changed its name last month from its previous title “Saenuri” to distance itself from Park), lost its majority in the legislative election last year to the newly formed center-left Minjoo Party. Park's presidency and her party's performance was on the decline even before her impeachment. The sinking of the Sewol in 2014 and her government's dealing of the disaster among other scandals contributed to the decline in support for the then Saenuri Party. Following the impeachment of Park, her party has fallen to shambles and is very unlikely to win the upcoming election. This trend seems to be continuing, as election match-up polls from the Korean research center show Minjoo's likely candidate, Moon Jae-In, winning the election by large margins. Moon is polling with a 29.9% approval rating in comparison to other parties candidates. The Minjoo Party itself, which has four candidates running, is polling at 45.7%. If Moon runs and win,s as many predict, it will be the first time since Ro Moo-Hyun that South Korea would have a left of center president. Many speculate that this could be detrimental to the relationship with the US and beneficial to China. Left-leaning presidents have been known for their softer, conciliatory stance on North Korea, in comparison to the hardline, pro-sanctions approach taken by conservatives. The Liberty Korea Party has yet to put forth a candidate that polled voters find attractive.
If the Minjoo party wins, a different foreign policy approach will likely be taken in regards to the US and North Korea. Left leaning politicians have historically been opposed to the US's military presence in the country, as well as the installation of the new THAAD missile defense system. The Minjoo Party has vocally opposed the installation of the THAAD missile defense system and has called on the US for a renegotiation of the system. Additionally, the South Korean left has opposed US-South Korean joint military drills and intelligence sharing with Japan in regards to North Korea. Their only actions have been to state that North Korea "shouldn't escalate tensions.” What many worry about is how conciliatory the likely incoming Minjoo Presidency would be towards North Korea. Left leaning parties have had a history of silencing free speech in order to appease North Korea. Furthermore, others are concerned about the hardline stances that Moon Jae-In and his party have taken towards Japan. Korea and Japan's relationship has always been strained, yet a landmark deal was made in the fall of 2015 to end the issue on comfort women used during the Second World War, in which Japan's Government agreed to pay 1 billion Yen ($8.3 million) to the surviving comfort women and end the issue once and for all. Minjoo was sharply critical of this deal. While the relationship between Park's administration and Japan wasn't warm to say the least, it was a step in the right direction to lower tensions over a near-century old dispute.
What is the most concerning about all of this is China and its place in all of this. China has also been a staunch vocal opponent of the THAAD system. They say that it may be used to hamper its military operations in the South China Sea. The US argues that it is not an offensive weapon and will be used solely to protect South Korea and Japan against potential North Korean missile attacks. The Chinese government, being the North's main supplier of financial support, may take advantage of a new left-leaning, North Korean-appeasing government to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US. Ever since Xi Jinping took power in China back in November 2012, China has been on an expansionist rampage throughout the region. Using its economic and military pressure, it has been able to manipulate relations with numerous countries across the Asia-Pacific region and the world. If and when the Minjoo Party wins, we could see a warming of relations between South Korea and China in a time when China is attempting to dominate the region.
While there are still two months until the election, the odds of Minjoo's likely candidate, Moon Jae-In, becoming the next president are high. He and his party's position on THAAD, US-Korean military exercises, appeasing positions towards North Korea, and anti-Japan rhetoric are alarming to say the least. China's interference in peninsular affairs is another concerning factor in all of this. As the election gets closer, the international community will have a clearer picture as to the direction South Korea is heading. As for now, the polarization and turmoil in the nation are reasons for concern in regards to maintaining the decades long stability on the Korean peninsula.