Whether or not South Korea’s president can weather one of the biggest political storms the country has seen in recent years remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the scandal about how a confidante with no official public role has had ousized influence over Park Geun-hye’s administration — and made sizable personal financial gains to boot — is threatening the stability of South Korea. How this political crisis plays out will have a deep impact not only within the Republic of Korea, but also across Asia and beyond.
The world continues to expand its expectation of the role South Korea will play on the global stage.
First and foremost is the geostrategic position Seoul finds itself in, at the front line of an ever-ambitious North Korea that remains unwavering in its aspirations to become and be recognized as a nuclear state. Putting aside prospects for reunification of the Korean Peninsula, ensuring that the South remains a stable, vibrant, and prosperous is key to promoting democratic principles governed by the rule of law with open markets. In fact, North Korea’s state media has been quick to manipulate the scandal about Choi Soon-sil and her outsized influence over President Park to criticize the legitimacy of her government and South Korea at large.
As prosecutors in Seoul press charges against Choi, and calls continue for further investigation in Park herself, the way the country moves forward from the scandal (regardless of whether Park will survive as president) will be a true test of its democracy. Given the very real challenges that democracies across industrialized nations are facing at the moment, Korea’s success in overcoming this scandal will be seen as a testimony to democracy’s effectiveness.
There is no doubt that a stable government in Seoul will be critical for security across the Asia-Pacific region, not least because of the continued threat from Pyongyang. For the United States, the defense treaty with Korea remains a pillar of preserving peace in an increasingly tension-ridden region, faced with rising militarism and aspirations for territorial expansion, together with ever-growing nationalist sentiment. As a new US administration takes office in January, the way Seoul fares in the latest political scandal will play a significant part in setting the tone for the future of the US-Korea alliance. If the issues related to Choi’s influence are dealt with swiftly, judiciously, and effectively, then the new US administration would be more eager to enhance bilateral relations. If not, the political crisis itself could become a source of friction between Washington and Seoul.
The United States should, of course, look to enhance its ties with South Korea not just for defense purposes, but in light of the political as well as economic realities of the region as well. After all, Korea is in a unique position insofar as it is a critical US ally on the one hand, while (until recently) it also enjoyed solid relations with China. Given China’s ever-growing political and military influence across the region, not to mention global expectations for Beijing to act as a bridge with Pyongyang, a Korean government that is able to navigate effectively between both the United States and China is critical.
Ensuring that Korea continues to flourish economically is also in the interest of the region. When she took office in 2013, President Park emphasized the need for Korea to be at the forefront of the knowledge economy to ensure that the country can remain competitive in the service sector. Over the past three years, however, initiatives to jump-start the so-called second miracle on the Han River have largely failed to take root, as the country’s global competitiveness ranking fell to 26th place in 2015 from 11th in 2007 among the 140 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum. At the same time, challenges facing some of the country’s biggest conglomerates including Samsung and Lotte could weigh down growth prospects, at least in the near term, as well.
In short, this is no time for political paralysis in Korea. From nuclear threats to economic uncertainties, the number of major issues that require a fully engaged Korea remains high. Putting aside whether or not President Park herself survives the scandal until the upcoming election in December 2017, Korea must be able to resolve the issues stemming from her relations with Choi swiftly and in a transparent manner.
Seoul’s success in moving forward will also be key to demonstrating the country’s ability to remain a leader in an increasingly tension-ridden region.