The December 9th impeachment of South Korean President Park Geun-hye has created a vacuum of political leadership in South Korea. Normally, the South Korean president would lead a full court press to confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s commitment to the U.S.-ROK security alliance and coordinate a consistent approach to the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
Instead, South Korea’s bureaucracy muddles through by managing day-to-day activities under an acting president while South Korea’s Constitutional Court deliberates for up to 180 days on whether to uphold or reject the South Korean National Assembly’s impeachment motion. Presidential candidates prepare for an early election that will be held 60 days following the Court’s judgment if the impeachment is upheld. If the impeachment is rejected, elections will be held in December 2017 as originally scheduled. Until South Korea has a new president, South Korea’s political vacuum will not be filled.
These circumstances make South Korea a political no-show at a critical moment of transition in the United States. A new U.S. president needs to know who to call in Seoul in the event of a crisis in North Korea, given that South Korea is a critical stakeholder in the event of instability on the Korean peninsula. Seoul will be disproportionately affected by how the new president handles the next widely-expected provocation from North Korea, whether it be an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) launch, a sixth nuclear test, or something in between.
President-elect Trump’s initial tweets regarding a possible North Korean ICBM launch have been primarily directed at China. Ironically, South Korea’s foreign ministry put the best possible gloss on Trump’s tweets by welcoming the first substantive mention of North Korea—and by promptly assigning ministry staff to monitor and report on Trump’s twitter account. But South Korean officials must also feel vulnerable as they face the fact that a tweet is a starkly unilateral declaration pursued without evident consultation on an issue that directly affects South Korea’s national security. If so, what consultation should South Korea anticipate from the Trump administration in response to a North Korean ICBM launch or nuclear test?
In the absence of political guidance that can only come from a duly-elected South Korean president, South Korean bureaucrats will not be equipped to provide consultation or even credible political signaling regarding what South Korea would regard as an effective U.S. response to a North Korean provocation. Instead, any U.S. response will be politicized and criticized in South Korea; the chance to exploit and manufacture such tensions may prove irresistible to North Korea. In addition, there is a low likelihood that beginner’s luck or good reflexes will be with any new administration, president, or senior staff unused to coordinating an effective political or military response with allies in Tokyo and Seoul.
South Koreans will privately note that Trump’s first instinct is to hold China responsible for North Korean bad behavior, but the prospect that such thinking might signal the possibility of a Sino-U.S. bargain on North Korea conducted without input from South Korean allies will be unsettling in Seoul.
Likewise, a more conflictual Sino-U.S. relationship will also have fallout for South Korea at a time when China is taking advantage of South Korea’s political vacuum and the U.S. transition to pressure Seoul to reverse its decision to host a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. South Korea is bearing the brunt of political retaliation for this alliance decision and will need early back-up from the new Trump team. Longer-term, the United States and South Korea need to strengthen bilateral consultations on how to deal with China as well as North Korea.
Similarly, South Korea’s political vacuum has politicized implementation of an agreement reached in December 2015 between Japan and South Korea with the encouragement of the United States. That agreement was intended to “finally and irreversibly” resolve differences between the South Korean and Japanese governments over the treatment of “comfort women” who served as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II and to restore normalcy to Japan-South Korea relations. To the extent that this agreement is regarded as the accomplishment of an impeached president, it is vulnerable to politicization during South Korea’s presidential campaign.
There are additional uncertainties stemming from Trump campaign statements that remain to be worked out pending new political leadership in South Korea. For instance, to what extent does the Trump administration really consider South Korea to be a free-rider when it comes to support for U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK)?
South Korea provided $860 million to support the U.S. troop presence on the peninsula in 2016, in addition to providing financing of $9.9 billion toward a $10.8 billion project to consolidate basing for USFK. Plus, South Korea has never charged rent for the land used by USFK. Prior to opening negotiations on cost-sharing to fund the U.S. presence there, a new South Korean president will seek credible political assurances from Trump that the United States remains committed to the defense of South Korea. In the meantime, the bureaucratic mechanisms of alliance cooperation between the two governments will have to muddle through until new political ties are established between Trump and South Korea’s new president.