Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Moon river: A new course for South Korea?

Impeachment provisions are the constitutional equivalent of emergency brakes. One hopes they will never have to be used – but if they are, you pray fervently that they work properly.

South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae In during the 2012 campaign (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
South Korean presidential candidate Moon Jae In during the 2012 campaign (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
Published 13 Mar 2017 

Impeachment provisions are the constitutional equivalent of emergency brakes. Or perhaps a parachute or ejector seat is a better metaphor. One hopes they will never have to be used – but if they are, you pray fervently that they work properly. A polity's life and health are at stake.

On that basis, so far so good in Seoul. South Korean democracy, just 30 years old, is robust in several senses. Thankfully, in these uncharted waters, the rule of law is the accepted compass. This impeachment looks less messy, partisan and compromised than the obvious comparison, Brazil. If all concerned keep playing by the book until the presidential election, expected on May 9, the Republic of Korea can start preparing to move on – as it urgently needs to.

March 10's Constitutional Court verdict – a resoundingly unanimous 8-0, from a mostly conservative bench – ousting Park Geun-hye as President, ends three months of damaging limbo. She could and should have spared her country that by stepping down – as many urged her to – when the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach her on December 9.

From 9 May the ROK will have a new President, with a fresh mandate and five years to prove himself. (No women are in the frame this time.) Unfortunately, that means the power vacuum in Seoul will continue for a further two months, at a time of intense foreign policy challenges.

Flushed with victory, some on the left want Hwang Kyo-ahn out too. The prime minister, a Park loyalist, is acting President as the Constitution prescribes. The liberal opposition is irate at his refusal to extend the term of special prosecutor Park Young-soo. Park (no relation) has indicted 30 people including Jay Y Lee – de facto head of Samsung – whose trial for corruption began on March 9. Park Geun-hye too was cited for suspected collusion, meaning she may face criminal charges and potential imprisonment now her presidential immunity has expired.

Calls for Hwang to go are irresponsible. The Constitution is clear: he is a necessary caretaker ad interim. There is no guidance on who would replace him. That could still arise if he runs for president, as he may. But there is no sense, and some risk, in rocking the boat gratuitously.

Progressives should be patient: come May, power will be theirs. For three months polls have given Moon Jae-in, who lost narrowly to Park Geun-hye last time in 2012, a huge lead over all other contenders. His party – the main opposition Minjoo (Democrats) – also has what looks an unassailable lead. With the conservative camp in disarray, Moon now outpolls both leftist rivals like Korea's Bernie Sanders, the abrasive Lee Jae-myung who had a brief surge last year; and also moderate centrists like the once fancied software magnate Ahn Cheol-soo and Ahn Hee-jung, a provincial governor. Although latest polls shows the latter's star rising slightly, the clear message is that voters want change, and most want Moon Jae-in.

This is striking. Despite his strong showing in 2012, Moon had often been seen as a divisive figure: widely blamed for the centre-left's split into two parties late in 2015. The ROK has a first-past-the-post system, with no transferable votes, so disunity can be electorally fatal: it lost progressives the 1987 election, and conservatives the 1997 one. This time both left and right are divided, but Moon and the Democrats are so far ahead they can hardly lose.

Whoever wins, the ROK's main challenges right now are in foreign policy. Besides the ever-present North Korean threat, two new concerns are China's anger over the THAAD missile defence system, and the maelstrom of chaos and punk unpredictability that is Donald Trump.

As former chief of staff to the late Roh Moo-hyun (president 2003-08), Moon has experience of engaging Pyongyang while handling a sceptical US ally (in his case George W Bush). He has consistently favoured resuming the ‘sunshine' approach, arguing that a successful policy mix must include carrots as well as sticks. That grates with the West's recent hard line, which has failed: Kim Jong-un today is a worse threat than ever. Trump's ongoing policy review, with all options reportedly on the table, is an admission that fresh approaches are needed.

China also insists that sanctions against the DPRK must be balanced by diplomacy. Yet Beijing will fear the ROK's return as a rival in Pyongyang: a role Park's predecessor Lee Myung-bak abandoned in 2010 by banning most North-South trade after the Cheonan was sunk. On THAAD, although Moon had earlier called for the final decision to await the next ROK government (meaning him), he may be quietly relieved if by May it is a fait accompli.

Beijing's blatant bullying – it may or may not enforce sanctions on North Korea, but despite disingenuous denials it is sure as hell sanctioning South Korea – can only backfire. No ROK leader can afford politically to kowtow to such pressure. It is odd that China cannot grasp this.

In these grim times, when elbowing trumps handshakes and nationalist snarling rules, South Korea cannot afford to be less assertive than other powers. Moon Jae-in will deliver that, but not unsubtly. His Twitter handle is Moonriver365. Depending which way Trump jumps, he may yet find in Moon a huckleberry friend who seeks the same rainbow's end after all.

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