Park’s Ouster Raises Prospect of Reset With China, Kim Jong Un

  • Presidential frontrunner Moon seeks review of Thaad deployment
  • China calls for all sides to ‘think rationally’ on North Korea

South Korea's Leadership Crisis: A Timeline

The impeachment of Park Geun-hye opens the door for a reset in ties with North Korea and China.

The leading candidates to replace Park, who was ousted as president by South Korea’s constitutional court on Friday, favor a softer touch with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. They’re also open to rethinking the deployment of the Thaad missile shield, which has spurred Chinese retaliation against South Korean companies.

Cutouts of Park Geun-hye and prime minister Hwang Gyo-ahn inside a jail cell, during a protest in Seoul, March 10.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

“The liberals believe that if you engage with North Korea, then they could get some kind of missile-test moratorium,” said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “The Chinese strategy will be to push just hard enough so the South Korean public sees the cost of having Thaad, but not too hard that you unleash outrage.”

The election campaign -- a vote must be held within 60 days -- will spur fresh debate on how to stop Kim from acquiring more powerful nuclear weapons and missiles. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to seek a new approach to dealing with North Korea in a trip to the region next week, though China’s calls for talks have been rebuffed by the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

Earlier this week, the U.S. military unloaded two mobile missile launchers in South Korea to start deployment of Thaad. It came as North Korea launched four ballistic missiles that landed in waters near Japan.

Sunshine Policy

The court upheld parliament’s vote to impeach Park amid a corruption probe. Opinion polls show South Korea’s liberals are favored to retake power after nine years of conservative rule.

That raises the prospect of a return to the so-called Sunshine Policy adopted from 1998 to 2008 that emphasized engagement with North Korea, an approach that Park’s predecessor dropped because it failed to stop Pyongyang’s weapons development.

Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in opinion polls to replace Park, has said the next government should review the decision to deploy Thaad. He has proposed economic exchanges and a plan for unification, in which the two Koreas come together economically before moving toward political integration.

Ahn Cheol-soo, another contender, said he’d back the deployment of Thaad but is also open to its withdrawal if China cooperates with sanctions on North Korea and ties with Pyongyang look like improving. Other candidates have called for dialogue, the resumption of tours north of the border and the reopening of a joint industrial complex that was closed in early 2016.

‘Very Unstable’

Acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn has stuck to Park’s line on North Korea.

“Alertness and immediate readiness should be strengthened for any North Korea provocation as the security condition is very unstable,” he said at a cabinet meeting after her ouster.

The U.S. moved to ensure no major policy shifts were coming on the heels of Park’s removal. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the alliance “will continue to be a linchpin of regional stability and security," the Associated Press reported. John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, called for continued cooperation in “defending against North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats.”

U.S. troops are stationed in both South Korea and Japan, which rely on the U.S. for a “nuclear umbrella” for protection in the region. China, which provides North Korea with most of its food and fuel, doesn’t want a unified Korea allied with the U.S. on its doorstep.

‘Breathing Space’

China sees Thaad as a threat that would upset “the strategic equilibrium in the region” and has used its economic clout to punish Korean companies. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday that Park’s decision to deploy Thaad hurt ties and reiterated the nation’s call for talks on North Korea.

“Everyone is clear that the current difficulties are a result of Korea’s insistence on deploying the Thaad system,” Geng said. Regarding North Korea, he called for all sides to “break free of old mindsets and think out of the box, think rationally and pragmatically.”

Moon has a “more sophisticated stance” than Park on Thaad, according to Shen Shishun, a senior researcher at the China Institute of International Studies under China’s Foreign Ministry.

“The impeachment has brought about an opportunity to reset China-Korea relations, which have sunk to rock bottom," Shen said. “It’ll serve Chinese interests best if we step back a bit and give the South a little breathing space to settle their domestic politics."

Nuclear Test

One complication is South Korea’s rocky relationship with Japan. In December 2015, the two nations signed a “final and irreversible” agreement over the issue of comfort women, who were coerced to serve in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.

Moon has said it’s hard to recognize the legitimacy of the deal without an official apology from Tokyo. Minister Fumio Kishida said Friday that Japan would urge South Korea to implement the agreement, Kyodo News reported.

It may not be long before alliances are tested. 38 North, a website that analyzes North Korea run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said commercial satellite imagery indicates Kim is preparing for a nuclear test.

Still, Park’s departure is a chance to have a South Korean leader who can influence the policy debate, Delury said.

“South Korea has been missing from the conversation," he said. “When there is talk in the U.S. about military options for North Korea, the first and main objection would come from almost any South Korean president because Seoul bears the brunt of what happens next."

— With assistance by Ting Shi, Sohee Kim, Kanga Kong, and Peter Martin

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