1H2017 Review: Korea

South Korea’s long-running political upheaval ensured that 2017 kicked off amid controversy. The very first day of the year saw president Park Geun-hye denouncing her impeachment by the National Assembly. However, on March 10, the Constitutional Court upheld the ruling, ending a presidency mired in controversy since Park’s election in 2012. Park was then arrested on March 31 and later indicted for misuse of power and corruption.

Koreans hope the country’s political farce has ended with Park’s arrest and the three years’ imprisonment meted out on June 24 to her close friend Choi Soon-sil, who was convicted of bribery and “obstruction of duty”. Her relationship with Park enabled her daughter to attend Ewha Woman’s University, one of the country’s leading colleges. )

The presidential election campaign of South Korea was launched immediately after the conclusion of Park’s impeachment. Five candidates debated over issues focusing on security, welfare, and jobs. Voters tended to compare candidates based on their political stances, especially on their potential attitudes towards North Korea. Three out of five candidates were progressive camps, indicating a more tolerant manner towards the North. The other two were more conservative, inheriting similar policies with the former president Park.

Moon Jae-in, a progressive nominee by the democratic party, was elected with 41.4% of the vote on May 10. The turnout rate of this election was 77.2%, 1.4 points higher than last time, and not far from the record 80.7% in 1997. The new president was a former human rights lawyer and chief of staff at the presidential place during the administration of the most recent liberal president Roh Moo-hyun. He shared several political views with the former president Roh, such as open communication with the North Korea, and a more cooperative Northeast Asia.

Moon took up the position in a tough diplomatic environment for South Korea. North Korea has been more active in its nuclear programme, while the death of the US student, Otto Warmbier, most likely due to his treatment in custody worsened North Korea-US relations. Despite the standoff, a North Korean sporting official visited the South to discuss the possibility of forming a joint Korean team for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

South Korea cannot be secured without military preparation. On June 30, the country held a “steel-cutting ceremony” to start the construction of a new 3,000-ton submarine. This construction is part of its Jangbogo-III project, aiming to build up naval forces. Two submarines are under construction, while South Korea may seek to build nuclear-powered submarines as the programme progresses.

South Korea’s military build-up has angered China, which sought to scupper the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system provided by the US, and launched a series of economic retaliation. Moon suggested suspending the deployment of the THAAD system after talks with President Xi Jinping of China. Moon also called US President Donald Trump to secure support for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

Domestically, Moon is busy fulfilling promises he made during the election campaign. He pledged to establish a “Fourth Industrial Revolution Committee”, specifically to promote the development of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and smart communications.

Korean salarymen are positive about the impact of high tech. According to a survey by Hunet, an education agency, 94% of respondents expected some changes in their life due to technological revolution, and 33% prepared themselves for the new technologies, hoping more opportunities and prosperity will be generated.

Moon’s diplomatic and domestic administration brought him a good start in popularity. On June 22, Moon pushed for a reduction of mobile telephone fees, a popular policy that helped him to an 80% public approval rate, according to a Gallup poll. But Moon's interventionist platform worries business people.

The new president conducted a visit to Washington from June 28 to July 1, during which Moon and Trump exchanged ideas regarding cooperation on a “new trade deal”.

Kuki Zhu is a master’s degree candidate at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Centre.