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(News Focus) Park's ouster comes amid Korea's deepening diplomatic woes

2017/03/10 11:23

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- The Constitutional Court's ruling to unseat President Park Geun-hye on Friday renders the country rudderless at a time it wrestles with growing security threats from North Korea, diplomatic feuds with China and Japan and a tough policy coordination with the new U.S. administration under Donald Trump.

In an unprecedented ruling, the court approved the parliamentary impeachment of Park in December over her alleged involvement in a massive influence-peddling scandal also embroiling her longtime friend.

The verdict immediately ended Park's presidency, forcing the nation to hold a presidential election within two months. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who took over after the impeachment, will continue to serve as acting president.

Experts said the leadership absence would make it harder for the nation to navigate through complicated diplomatic challenges, with one serious ramification being the trouble South Korea will have in carrying out "summit diplomacy."

   "It will be hard to expect any breakthrough in the months to come in terms of diplomacy. Our counterparts in other countries won't make meaningful steps at a time when a new government and new president will take office in a few months," Woo Jung-yeop, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, said.

"Nor should we expect any meaningful outcome of negotiations under the acting president."

   Park's ouster couldn't come at a worse time for South Korea given the bleak diplomatic landscape confronting the country right now.

South Korea has been at odds with its two strong neighbors, Japan and China.

Japan brought in its top envoy in Seoul in January in protest of the erection of a girl statue before its consulate that symbolizes the hardship of women it forced into sexual slavery during World War II. Japan's repeated territorial claims to South Korea's eastern islets of Dokdo have also added to the rift.

What's more concerning is that tensions with China have been deepening ever since South Korea decided to host an advanced U.S. missile defense system called THAAD on its soil despite Beijing's strong objections. As the process to install THAAD picked up speed recently, Beijing has stepped up what appears to be retaliation against South Korean goods and companies as a way to apply more pressure.

In addition, North Korea has continued with missile provocations at a time South Korea's frayed ties with China and Japan have undermined the cooperation needed to cope with the recalcitrant northern neighbor.

All these are exacerbating worries over what could be done when a major diplomatic situation or even a serious provocation, say, from the North happens at a time with no clear decision-maker with a strong mandate at the top.

"What could be problematic is when national security is at stake. What if the North carries out a major military provocation that requires an action from the government? Without the leader and ahead of the election that would make almost everything politicized, it would be hard to take swift and right action," Woo said.

In this sense U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's visit to Korea next week is very important, as he could send a message to the North that the Seoul-Washington alliance is strong and steadfast, which could help stave off any military provocation by the North, he added.

Tillerson's planned visit to Seoul is part of his first Asian tour since taking office as top diplomat under the Donald Trump administration. He is to visit Japan and China as well.

Though many agree that Park's dismissal would make it harder to handle the already-tough diplomatic and security situations, some cautiously say that it could eventually help ease the overall uncertainty hanging over South Korea for months.

They also say that the country will now be able to leave the legal battle for her fate behind and move forward with whoever will be chosen as head of state in the upcoming presidential election.

"I don't think that things will be much different in the months to come from the past few in that there is no commander-in-chief with a mandate," said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

"The final ruling on the president's impeachment, however, will help remove uncertainty to some extent and make people from home and abroad turn their attention now to major presidential candidates likely to run in the election and, accordingly, those candidates will further clarify their stance on major issues," he added.

Experts agreed that the acting president-led government should try hard not to be swayed by political influence given that any action or policymaking will be closely scrutinized and politicized by those running for president and their parties seeking to better jockey for the election.

They called for stable management until the presidential election is held and power is handed over to the next leader but cautioned against balking at any major government policy just because of its political ramifications either.

"Stable management is important but it shouldn't go so far as to postpone everything until the next government comes in. The government should do its duty until the end without being influenced by populism and political reasons," said Yang Wook, a senior researcher of the Korea Defense and Security Forum.