A court decision officially removing South Korea President Park Geun-hye from office on Friday finally brought an end to one of the weirder international political scandals in memory. That doesn’t mean, though, Korean politics are going to calm down anytime soon.
The ruling immediately provoked protests from Park’s supporters, many of whom are longtime backers of her family (her father, Park Chung-hee, was military dictator in the 1960s and ‘70s). At least two people have already been killed in clashes with the police.
The country is now in for a drama-filled period leading up to a special presidential election in 60 days. The process could involve as many as three votes in two months, since the main opposition party is set for a party primary, and a likely runoff, ahead of the main election.
Domestically, the big political question is whether any candidate can tackle the country’s culture of high-level corruption and the pervasive influence of the powerful family-run corporations known as chaebol. There’s also the question of how to deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea, whose ability to deploy its nuclear weapons appears to be improving at a rapid pace. The next South Korean president will also find himself—the main contenders to replace the country’s first female leader are all men—in the middle of a struggle between the United States and China for influence in the region.
The first piece of a controversial U.S.-built missile system known as THAAD arrived in South Korea this week, and it is due to be deployed on land currently occupied by a golf course before the end of this year. The deployment of the system, designed to shoot down short- and intermediate-range missiles, was fast-tracked following North Korea’s recent missile tests as well as apparent concerns about South Korea’s domestic political situation.
The conservative party of Park and acting President Hwang Gyo-an has supported THAAD to defend against a possible North Korean missile attack. But the deployment of the system has been fiercely opposed by China, which believes it’s real purpose is to give the United States a strategic advantage in any possible armed conflict by allowing it to track Chinese missile systems.
China—South Korea’s largest trading partner—has been dialing up the economic pressure on Seoul by shutting down stores in China owned by Lotte, the Korean company that allowed the system to be built on its golf course. China has also forced airlines and cruise operators to cut routes to South Korea.
The South Korean public is divided on THAAD, with many feeling the system isn’t worth antagonizing China, but it’s unclear if the next president would actually halt the project. Current front-runner Moon Jae-in, of the Democratic Party of Korea, has said that it should have been left to the next president to make a decision on THAAD, but he’s been coy about what he would do as president now. His rival Lee Jae-myung, within the party, a populist who’s earned comparisons to Bernie Sanders, is more strongly critical.
It’s far from clear at this point if the next president will reverse course on THAAD. But Beijing seems happy to see Park go—state broadcasters in China devoted heavy coverage to the protests leading up to her removal—and is likely to dial up pressure in the coming months.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Asia for the first time next week, with planned stops in Japan, South Korea, and China. It’s unclear if the Trump administration actually plans to follow through on some of the radical changes the president suggested before coming into office—including abandoning the one-China policy and encouraging South Korea to obtain nuclear weapons—or to follow a more traditional U.S. strategy.
The press-shy secretary of state reportedly plans to break precedent and make the trip without U.S. journalists coming along. That’s a shame: It should be an interesting one.