Defeat of South Korean ruling party musn’t derail cooperation over North
The political base of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who has one year and 10 months left in her term, has been shaken to its core.
This is a development that raises concerns about the possible negative impact on South Korea’s policies toward North Korea and Tokyo-Seoul ties.
In South Korea’s parliamentary election, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party suffered a devastating defeat and lost its majority in the National Assembly. The main opposition Minjoo Party of Korea, a left-leaning party that favors a conciliatory stance toward North Korea, made significant gains and is now the largest party in the assembly. The People’s Party, a new party, also picked up many seats.
A South Korean president serves one five-year term and cannot be reelected. When an administration enters the latter half of its term, it normally becomes a lame duck. A further decline in its unifying force is unavoidable.
The direct cause of the ruling party’s defeat was an internal conflict prior to the election that caused many people to lose trust in the party. Discord between lawmakers close to Park and lawmakers in an anti-Park group who want to keep their distance from her resulted in a split election, as some anti-Park lawmakers who were denied official nominations ran as independents.
The Park administration’s failure to produce any notable results on the economic front also affected the election. Due to the economic slowdown in China and other factors, South Korea’s exports have fallen and growth has been tepid. The rising unemployment rate, especially among young people, has become a social problem.
Park will have to increasingly request opposition parties’ cooperation to pass bills seeking to reenergize the economy, and on other issues. Running her administration will become more difficult.
Stick to ‘comfort women’ deal
Park has an obligation to deal with North Korea’s repeated provocations, such as its nuclear tests and launches of long-range ballistic missiles.
South Korea has quite appropriately adopted a hard-line approach to North Korea, such as by slapping its own sanctions on Pyongyang in addition to those imposed by the United Nations. Halting operations at the Kaesong industrial complex will be effective in severing a source of funds for the administration of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Criticism from opposition parties that these steps are excessive is unfair.
To prevent North Korea from committing any reckless acts, it is essential for Seoul to strengthen its alliance with Washington and continue to discuss the deployment of a sophisticated U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.
Some observers have suggested the opposition party’s victory will make it harder to conclude a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that is being discussed by Japan and South Korea. However, the importance of cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea must not be forgotten.
What will happen to efforts aimed at implementing the Japan-South Korea deal on so-called comfort women, which was realized at the end of last year, is a cause for concern.
South Korea is obliged to establish a foundation that will provide support to former comfort women. South Korea has also promised to make efforts to remove a statue of a girl symbolizing comfort women set up in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. Japan has demanded that this statue be removed.
Deep-rooted opposition to this deal remains in South Korea. Although the comfort women issue did not become a major point of contention in the election, the Minjoo Party of Korea called in its campaign promises for the withdrawal and renegotiation of the deal.
We will watch carefully and hope Park will not be swayed by such pressure, and that she implements the deal to improve Japan-South Korea relations.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 15, 2016)