Whither Seoul?
No More President Park

The prolonged scandal surrounding South Korea’s beleaguered president has come to a close, with the constitutional court upholding an impeachment measure to formally remove Park Geun-hye from her post. With elections looming in 60 days, though, new leadership could bring a different tack on North Korea. The New York Times looks ahead:

With the conservatives discredited — and no leading conservative candidate to succeed Ms. Park — the left could take power for the first time in a decade. The dominant campaign issues will probably be North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and South Korea’s relations with the United States and China.

If the opposition takes power, it may try to revive its old “sunshine policy” of building ties with North Korea through aid and exchanges, an approach favored by China. That would complicate Washington’s efforts to isolate the North at a time other Asian nations like the Philippines are gravitating toward Beijing.

Moon Jae-in, the Democratic Party leader who is leading in opinion surveys, has said that a decade of applying sanctions on North Korea had failed to stop its nuclear weapons programs. He has said that sanctions are necessary, but that “their goal should be to draw North Korea back to the negotiating table.”

The Times is probably right that whoever is elected as Park’s successor is likely to be less enthusiastic about the THAAD anti-missile deployment and Washington’s hawkish stance on North Korea. Still, it may be too soon to panic that the next South Korean President will fundamentally change course.

For one, the escalating nuclear threat could harden public opinion against Pyongyang, and render talk of a conciliatory policy dead on arrival. And Moon himself, though generally in favor of engagement, is no ideologue and has indicated a willingness to compromise on security issues. Moreover, the Trump administration’s expediting the THAAD deployment is creating facts on the ground that the next President will find hard to undo. Moon has already grumbled that the next government would likely have its hands tied on the issue.

Of course, that hardly means that all is well. South Korea is still deep in crisis mode, the North is growing more assertive, and Park’s removal throws another uncertain variable into a volatile region. There are legitimate fears that Pyongyang could exploit the leadership chaos in the next two months to further test Seoul. For all these reasons, sure-footed U.S. policy toward South Korea has never been more important. During his trip to Seoul next week, Secretary of State Tillerson will need to start building bridges to ensure continuity between Park’s administration and whoever takes her place.

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