On Friday, South Korea's Constitutional Court upheld the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, removing her from office and paving the way for the political opposition to take power. The upheaval brings new uncertainty about the future of the nation's maritime and defense policies.
"The president's violations of the Constitution and the law amount to a betrayal of the people's trust and are grave actions that cannot be tolerated from the perspective of defending the Constitution," said acting chief justice Lee Jung-mi in announcing the verdict.
Park was impeached on December 9 following revelations of a corrupt "donations" scheme involving a close friend and advisor, Choi Soon-sil. Choi was accused of using her proximity to the president to extort money from Korea's largest companies, including Samsung, in the form of charitable gifts to foundations that she controlled. In addition, Choi allegedly wielded outsize influence within Park's government, even though she held no official position.
Park had no comment on the ruling herself, but her political party took responsibility for her administration's failings. "We failed to fulfill our duty as the ruling party, and failed to protect the dignity and pride of South Korea," said Liberty Korea Party acting leader In Myung-jin. Now that she is no longer president, she will likely face questioning from prosecutors and may be subject to criminal charges. Choi has already been indicted for her role in the scandal, along with the leader of Samsung Group, Korea's largest company.
Acting president and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has warned that North Korea could use the situation as an opportunity to sow confusion, and he called for the military to be ready to respond to any provocation. American forces in Korea will be reinforced with the arrival of the carrier USS Carl Vinson, which is due to call at Busan on March 15 to participate in a large-scale military exercise.
Park's replacement will be chosen in a special election, which is tentatively scheduled for May 9. Democratic Party leader Moon Jae-in is well ahead in public opinion polls and is favored to win the contest. Whoever takes up the presidency, they will have to contend with continued weakness in the nation’s shipbuilding and shipping industries; Park initiated a multi-billion dollar subsidy program to support Korean maritime firms, but troubled companies like Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering are likely to drag on the economy for some time. Krystal Tan, Asia economist with Capital Economics in Singapore, told US News that while Park’s ouster will bring more certainty to the markets, a sharp rebound is not likely. “Growth is likely to be held back by a combination of high household debt, the ongoing restructuring of the shipbuilding industry, and mounting external headwinds,” she said.
THAAD deployments continue
North Korea has increased its nuclear research and missile-testing activity over the past year, and in response, the United States has begun the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to protect South Korea from a ballistic missile attack. The first THAAD launchers arrived at Osan Air Base on March 6, and more components will be shipped over the course of the next several months. Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis told reporters that the deployment schedule for the system would not change after Park's removal from office. "Leaders change over time," he said. "This is something that is needed militarily. That agreement was reached and we remain committed to delivering on it."
If elected, Moon Jae-in says he will support renewed engagement with North Korea, and he has suggested that a decision on THAAD should be put off until after the election. “Reconsidering THAAD would have to be preceded with diplomatic efforts, including diplomatic efforts with the US. I don’t think that the reconsidering of THAAD would harm the South Korea-US alliance,” Moon said in December. The other leading candidates want to retain Park's policies on national defense.
China has protested the deployment of the anti-missile system in strident terms, and PLA hard-liners have even threatened "surgical strikes" to destroy it on the ground. As a sign of its displeasure, the Chinese government has rolled out a series of increasingly punitive economic measures, including shuttering South Korean-owned chain stores; halting the sale of Korea package tours for Chinese tourists; banning cross-border charter flights; making it harder for Koreans to get visas; and keeping K-pop stars off of Chinese TV shows. The measures appear to have taken the interim government by surprise. "The Chinese government did not mention economic retaliation against us and did not hint at it, either," said foreign minister Yun Byung-se, speaking to Korea Times.