11132019What's Hot:

South Korea at a crossroads

First, some context:

3 die in protests after South Korean president removed from office

China plans to increase number of Marine Corps from 20,000 to 100,000 to boost global presence

What's the connection, you may ask. Well, do bear with me. See, three people have died in the riots in Seoul that followed the verdict of the Constitutional court that confirmed the removal of president Park Geun-hye because of big abuse of power. There were protests for and against her on the streets around the court, and the drama eventually boiled over into clashes with the police forces. Hence the casualties. Both crying and jubilant people filled the news reports coming from various correspondents covering the events. Even foreign journalists were mildly hurt amidst all the chaos.

South Korea has been shaking with scandals around Park's misconduct for months. Last month, the media incidentally came across a tablet of her close friend, a woman who didn't have an official post in the government but was practically the president's closest confidante and most trusted advisor – she wrote her speeches and directly influenced foreign policies, etc. But it went even deeper. That same lady, named Choi Soon-Sil turned out to be the daughter of a religious sect that at one time had attracted the then would-be president when she was young. So this friend of hers used her closeness to the president to enrich herself. She pressured big companies to donate huge amounts to her foundations, promising them favours on behalf of the government in return. This network of corruption involved dozens of influential companies, Samsung included (its CEO was arrested in relation to this investigation).

Wild protests against the corrupt president started as early as last autumn, with demands to impeach her and prosecute all involved. Her friend was arrested in October after a long stay in Germany, and there's an ongoing investigation against her and dozens of suspects. In the meantime, now former president Park made a number of statements, asking for people's forgiveness and trying to tone the passions down, promising she never really did anything wrong in her capacity of head of state, and she hadn't hurt the national interest and hadn't violated any law. She resisted the calls to resign before the impeachment procedure had started, so things were set for escalation.

In December, the SK parliament voted to impeach the president. But according to the constitution, this decision should also be confirmed by the constitutional court. Which is what has happened now. So Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea and daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee who was killed by the chief of his own bodyguard back in 1979, has also become the first leader of her country to be removed from the post due to abuse of power. Now there are no further obstacles to prosecuting her in court. And South Korea has 60 days to conduct snap parliamentary elections.

The geopolitical stakes will be very high on these elections. The Korean peninsula has been divided for more than half a century now, and this divisive line outlines the clash of two geopolitical paradigms. This conflict continues to be a source of geopolitical tension. Several great powers cross their interests in this spot, especially the US and China. For the US, South Korea is crucial from a geostrategic standpoint, and the nuclear ambitions of the North pose a major challenge. In turn, China is the only country who's able to maintain a working dialogue with North Korea and have some influence on their policies. But China and the US are now on a direct collision course, scrambling for control over key trade routes in the Pacific region, including the South China Sea where the US openly supports the neighbouring countries opposed to China, trying to block China's increased assertiveness in the region.

The other field of division is the controversial TTIP agreement, which the US used to view as a way to consolidate its alliance and counter China's economic power. Now, when Trump has decided to block the agreement, the focus is evidently going to shift elsewhere. Some analysts are fixated on Henry Kissinger's renewed influence in Washington and they believe his policies of the 70s would be reanimated, namely to tone down the tensions between the US and China. But these are just speculations for now, because both Kissinger and the world are very different from what they used to be in the 70s.

In any case, the incoming SK election will be a big test for both the American and Chinese plans in the region. Let me remind that Trump recently assured SK that America's allied relations with them will continue, and he not only promised an increased US military presence on the peninsula but also to install a US missile shield – a move that caused concern in Beijing and may've been the catalyst that prompted them to take retaliatory action by increasing their military spending.

By the way, it is believed that the interim president Hwang Kyo-ahn who temporarily replaced the impeached Park Geun-hye will try to push the installation of this shield much more urgently even before the election. Estimates show that this shield could be made fully operational by the end of April, way ahead of schedule.

As for the election itself, it'll be very hotly contested. The polls show some advantage to the opposition centre-left Democratic Party. Their platform proposes a softer dialogue with the North, and they're believed to be friendlier to China.

All that said, we shouldn't underestimate two more players, Russia and Japan, each with their own historical positions on the Korean peninsula, and with their own regional and geopolitical interests and their specific sensitivity to these matters. So, after 64 years of a divided Korea, the still ongoing "Cold" Korean War is bound to keep producing more geopolitical tensions, and maybe even shake-ups.

Source: Talk politics.

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