Published daily by the Lowy Institute

South Korea lost without its mojo

A year ago, the country seemed to be ticking along quite nicely. But now things are falling apart.

South Korea lost without its mojo
Published 28 Feb 2017   Follow @mfullilove

Last week I visited the Republic of Korea (ROK), where I had the opportunity to meet with officials, think tankers and journalists.

My impression is that South Koreans feel set upon. And why wouldn’t they?

A year ago, the country seemed to be ticking along quite nicely, with a stable political situation and a prosperous economy. But now things are falling apart.

The government of President Park Geun-hye is in disarray. President Park still resides in the Blue House, but while she fights for her political life in impeachment-related proceedings before the Constitutional Court, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is serving as the acting president.

The discovery that President Park was under the thumb of the daughter of a quasi-religious leader, or ‘shaman fortuneteller’, who profited from her presidency, shook the Korean public’s confidence in their institutions.

The candidates to replace Park as president are underwhelming, and the recent decision by former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon not to contest the presidency has further weakened the field.

Even the national champion Samsung, the market capitalisation of which is roughly 20% of South Korea’s GDP, is in difficulties. First it created the world’s first self-combusting smartphone. Then a fortnight ago, one of its senior executives was arrested for bribery in connection to the Park Geun-hye corruption scandal.

All of this adds up to a general sense of malaise in the country.

North of the 38th parallel, junior madman Kim Jong Un has been keeping busy.

Earlier in February, Pyongyang tested a ballistic missile which fell in to the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

And only a few days later, North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The murder of a member of the ‘Paektu bloodline’ (so called because Paektu mountain is said to be the spiritual home of the Kim dynasty) was disturbing enough. However, the fact that the North Korean security services were prepared to use a weapon of mass destruction in a major commercial airport is genuinely shocking. No wonder US President Donald Trump cancelled the visas of the North Koreans who were due to participate in an unofficial dialogue in the United States this week.

Towards the end of my trip I visited the inaptly named demilitarised zone (DMZ), which is actually one of the most heavily militarised places in the world.

We drove up Highway One past military installations, barbed wire and concrete blockades rigged to collapse in the case of an invasion.

At Panmunjom I visited the famous Conference Row.

The heavy snow and freezing temperatures seemed to suit the Cold War atmosphere of the place. Given the provocations from the North in recent weeks, I was glad to be in the presence of intimidating ROK soldiers with their aviator glasses and taekwondo stances.

As I drove to Incheon Airport on my way home, I passed an unprepossessing skyscraper topped with the words ‘Trump World’. I hoped it was a coincidence, but it turns out the president of the United States really is inescapable.

All photos by the author

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