South Korea’s 2017 Presidential Election: Time to Stop the “Time Bomb” Together

By Heejun Tae —

North Korean missiles on parade in Pyongyang. Source: Rapidtravelchai’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Unprecedented political turmoil has engulfed South Korea for months and the public is concerned about how the forthcoming presidential election will affect the future. However, up to this point attention has primarily been focused on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the corruption scandals associated with her friend and confidante Choi Soon-sil. Too little attention has been paid to the impact that this crisis has and will have on national security.

On February 12, North Korea launched a new intermediate-range ballistic missile called the Pukguksong-2. This test demonstrated North Korea’s rapidly developing ballistic missile program. However, many South Koreans have paid little attention to this important national security issue. Despite Kim Jong-un’s 41st ballistic missile test in just 5 years, public anger mounted against the acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn for a different reason. Ironically, Korean opposition parties threatened to impeach Hwang because of his refusal to extend the 90-day investigation period of the special prosecutor’s office charged with gathering evidence in Park’s corruption-related scandal. Concerns about North Korea thus were pushed onto the backburner.

Decades of partisan rivalry and bickering have severely weakened South Korea’s ability to deal more effectively with North Korea. This deep-seated political rift between the left and right is still keeping South Korea from agreeing on a resolute and uniform strategy to cope with the ever-growing North Korean nuclear threat. The real tragedy in the ongoing political drama is that presidential aspirants seem more focused on gaining popularity and power, rather than striving to bridge the political rift between parties and develop a bi-partisan security plan.

Domestic turmoil and political in-fighting are significant because the security threats from North Korea have now become gravely imminent, and the political disfunction is affecting South Korea’s ability to deal with the threats. After more than 60 missile tests, North Korea has succeeded in launching a solid-fuel propelled ballistic missile from the ground. John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and weapons expert, predicted that by 2020 North Korea will most likely be able to develop a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) topped by a nuclear warhead. Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, in his recent February 2017 report and Congressional Testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs also warned of this possibility. The alleged killing of Kim Jong-nam by North Korean agents in Malaysia using VX nerve agent also raises concerns about North Korea’s chemical weapons program. Should these predictions all turn out to be true, there is certainly every reason to believe that South Korea is running out of time in restraining the North from its current course – in that case Seoul can no longer lose time with partisan bickering.

Another prevailing concern among South Koreans is the future of the U.S.-Korea alliance which could potentially weaken should the North Koreans succeed in developing an ICBM capable of reaching targets on the American West Coast. Concerns that President Trump could abandon his Asian ally are pronounced due to his previous proclamations that South Korea and Japan need to pay more for their own defense and his current “America First” policy. Trump might reaffirm the U.S.-ROK alliance today, tomorrow, or after three years, but South Koreans are still worried about the uncertainties in the relationship. At times like these more communication is needed between the two countries to avoid friction and misunderstanding in the alliance. However, the current political chaos in South Korea only makes it harder to maintain relations with the new Trump administration. Koreans may not stop worrying about the new Trump administration completely, but promptly and vigorously creating a comprehensive plan to cooperate with both the United States and Northeast Asian neighbors, and above all to deal with North Korea, would go a long way towards alleviating these concerns.

The last year was a tumultuous one for South Korea and its exasperated public is demanding a complete change in leadership. Park’s scandal unfolded against the backdrop of rising public discontent with the administration’s conservative policies, which brought to light deep-seated domestic problems such as corrupt government-business ties, elite privilege, and societal inequalities. Therefore, domestic reform in some form will undoubtedly be a prerequisite for any presidential aspirant to succeed in the next election. An immediate security plan should, however, also find a place at the top of the agenda.

The history of South Korea’s inconsistent security policies on North Korea offers little assurance that it will succeed, unless the next president manages to overcome the left-right policy divide and promptly comes up with a consistent long-term security plan. Therefore, the presidential aspirants are mistaken if they believe that campaign promises based on anti-government, anti-chaebol, or anti-Park sentiment are going to translate automatically into triumph. For sure, such promises might gain them votes, but they should be aware of the fact that the country is running out of time as well as its ability to deliver on their promises, without having any distinct plans to solve the North Korean problem. The parties are lacking compromise and communication which are necessary to create good public policies.

North Korea’s latest missile tests may not be as immediately consequential as China’s ban on tourism to Korea or the ever-tightening retaliatory measures taken against Korean firms. However, the North Korean nuclear program represents a “time bomb” that the next South Korean administration will have to cope with immediately. In order to avoid a situation in which there is a policy vacuum at the beginning of the newly-inaugurated administration that puts national security in jeopardy, the presidential aspirants should productively use the interim time until their inauguration to start creating concrete plans. Perhaps, they should promptly but thoroughly review the country’s past and current national security policies and be reaching out to the other political parties to bring them to the negotiating table. The four political parties of South Korea should be sitting in the National Assembly developing bi-partisan plans together, instead of just bickering or threatening one another or calculating how the election results will turn out. What we know for sure at least, is the invariable fact that Kim Jong-un is not going to wait until the next South Korean administration can function fully – that he will relentlessly proceed in going nuclear.

Mr. Heejun Tae is an intern with the Korea Chair at CSIS and a fellow at the Asan Academy.


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