When politics happens all at once (Cable from Korea #10)

So, what on earth is happening in Korea at the moment?

Rather a lot! Indeed, developments in Korean politics seem to have conspired to happen all at once!

There are three major strands to recent events.

  • Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport. The Malaysian authorities have indicated that he was killed with VX nerve gas and North Korean agents appear to have been responsible. Malaysian nationals in North Korea have been barrred from leaving until Pyongyang is sure that everyone accused by of the murder by the Malaysians is returned ‘safely’.
  • North Korea’s nuclear program continues to agitate its neighbours. Last week it test fired four ballistic missiles. Its capabilities are developing such that, within the near future it will likely be able to target the continental US. Predictably, Washington does not like this. Just a few hours after the latest test, it announced it was accelerating its deployment to South Korea of an anti-missile system known as THAAD. That in turn has upset China, which fears that THAAD’s radar will allow the US to peer into its territory. Beijing has responded by going after Chinese companies doing business in China, and squeezing the number of Chinese tourists going to South Korea.
  • South Korea’s Supreme Court removed the country’s President, Park Geun-hye, from office for “acts that violated the Constitution and laws”, namely encouraging Samsung to pay money into charities controlled by her friend, and purported shaman, in exchange for instructing a government pension fund to vote in favour of allowing two parts of the conglomerate to merge. The news of her final downfall was met by protests both in support and opposition, the latter of which turned violent and resulted in protestors dying.

What connects all this?

I’m hesitant to say anything does. They are distinct phenomenon.

It is tempting for outsiders, to see all South Korean politics through the lense of relations with the North. But domestic factors are at least as important, and Park’s downfall was basically a South Korean affair: her corruption was exposed by other South Koreans, and produced an outcry not only because it was intrinsically objectionable, but also because Koreans had grown frustrated with declining economic opportunities.

Even though it happened thousands of miles away, Kim’s assassination was also basically about domestic politics. It was an act of dynastic housekeeping, that removed a potential rival to Kim Jong-Un, who by the law of primogeniture should have been Supreme Leader.

That said, these developments will feed into each other.

Malaysia is one of the few countries with which the North enjoyed something approaching a normal relationship. Then it used a WMD to kill someone on its territory, and is now holding its citizens hostage to escape the blowback of that decision. Which is the kind of behaviour that leaves you so isolated that you become convinced that you need to build nuclear weapons to survive.

[See also: Setting of a large bomb at one of your ally’s most important monuments]

The South Korean response to that program will probably change along with its president. Park and her conservative party not only agreed to the deployment of THAAD but also tougher sanctions and the closure of a South Korean run industrial park in North Korea. It seems highly likely that her successor will come from a left-wing party and progressive Koreans have traditionally been more sceptical of the American alliance and more willing to gamble on outreach to the North. For example, the front runner in the presidential election, Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in, has indicated that he would ask the American’s to remove THAAD from Korea.

What should I watch for now?

Principally, who becomes the next South Korean president. New elections need to happen within two months. As former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has ruled himself out as a candidate, it seems doubtful that the conservatives have anyone who can stop Moon. Plus, it appears that the right will be divided between pro- and anti-Park parties. It is therefore quite likely that the main obstacle to Moon’s ascension will come in his own party’s primary. If Ahn Hee-jung, a centrist governor who is more equivocal on THAAD, bests him then expect relief in Washington and disappointment in Beijing.

Pyongyang would probably also favour a liberal government in Seoul. So, it will be interesting to see if they act to avoid undermining Moon’s chances. For example, there are indications that the North is preparing for another nuclear test. If it carries it out before the election, then that would indicate that the North either isn’t interested in the party politics of the South, sees its interests differently from how we do, or that the timings of tests are driven by technical rather than strategic considerations.

If Moon or another left-winger wins then relations with Washington are potentially tricky. Trump has previously indicated that he has doubts about the value of the US-ROK alliance. He’s since rode back from that position and its clear that people like his Defence Secretary, James Mattiss, do think that working with Seoul is to America’s benefit. However, I fear that a new left-wing South Korean president might appear ‘insolent’ to Trump, which might bring his petulance to the fore, and could trigger an anti-US backlash in South Korea.

A victory for Moon or another progressive candidate would go against what appears to be the global trend for left leaning parties to struggle. Indeed, combine a Moon victory with Hilary Clinton winning the popular vote in the US, Macron becoming French president, Geert Wilders struggling in the Dutch elections and the Democratic Party retaining power in Italy – all of which seem plausible – then the very existence of the trend would look dubious.

That said the anti-Park movement has been a very populist one, drawing on opposition to the political power of large corporations, so the observation that we are in an age of populism seems vindicated by these events.

Indeed, the often voiced populist demand for politicians and corporate execs to be locked up for their misdemeanours may well come to pass in Korea. Park no longer enjoys presidential immunity, so I would expect charges to be brought against her. Many of her associates have already been indicted. Perhaps more importantly will be the trial of Jay Y. Lee, the head of Samsung. The conglomerate is the third largest company in the world by revenue, which is a huge deal in a medium-sized economy like South Korea’s, but given the global reach of Samsung’s activities would matter well beyond the Korean peninsula.