The ouster of former-president Park Geun-hye on March 10, 2017 was the biggest political event in South Korea in decades. It symbolized the collective power of the People overcoming an elitist regime steeped in corruption that seemed to consider self-dealing an inherent privilege of ruling class.
Now that Park is gone, the geopolitical winds have shifted. There is no longer a true president in the Republic of Korea. The anti-corruption zeitgeist is still palpable, but without a strong villain, the story just isn’t as compelling to most citizens. In the interim, former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has become acting president, and the vote to elect a new president takes place on May 9. But the recent disconcerting exchange between North Korea, the US, and China show signs of potentially eclipsing this important event—or at least stealing its thunder.
The presidential power vacuum
For historical and practical reasons, the role of president in Korea is full of import and meaning, especially on a foreign policy level. But now there is a vacuum of power since this role is not legitimately filled. To those in Western hierarchical systems of governance, this may seem strange. But recall that even Park’s deputy prime minister couldn’t make an executive decision while Park was undergoing surgery during the ‘seven missing hours’ of the fateful Sewol Ferry incident. In Korea (North and South), the President is more than just another elected official—he or she is the de facto captain in the country’s ship of destiny.
The question on many people’s minds in the past few days is how this lack of leadership will affect the relationship between South Korean officials and North Korea’s Kim regime. A cacophony of voices prevails: many are focused on the domestic political issues at hand, while others are looking outside of South Korea’s borders and seeing imminent threats that, although omnipresent for many years, seem to have sharped and intensified with a wild-card adversary like US President Donald Trump in the White House. As someone who views employing diplomatic channels as an aberration of normal executive action, Trump’s unpredictable war-path approach has at the very least but many leaders around the world on edge.
As a result, many living in the ROK—Koreans and foreigners alike—have begun to wonder what the near future holds, especially if Trump and Kim Jeong-eun continue their sabre-rattling and military escalations. In response to news of Pyongyang’s planning of a sixth nuclear missile test, Trump has recently deployed an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and a retinue of warships to the South Pacific, where they recently conducted exercises with the South Korean Navy.
On the Northern Front (then again, maybe we shouldn’t be calling it that just yet), China has recently deployed 150,000 troops to the China-North Korea border, and Chinese central government officials in Beijing have suspended all imports on North Korean coal, a big blow to the resource-poor nation where coal comprises 40% of its exports. Whether this is the result of a bilateral effort to convince Kim Jong Eun to halt further nuclear tests or the beginning of escalating tensions between two world powers, no one seems to be exactly clear. Either way, realpolitik and the elitist fog of war are being used to full effect in this recent regional run-up to…let’s wait and see what exactly it is.
‘Meh. This happens every year.’
Perhaps the most common response to these developments on social media by foreigners who have lived in South Korea for many years is that of cool complacency. For expats who have lived in this country for many years, the war-hungry rhetoric of the Kims (Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jeong-eun), worthy of a Game of Thrones parody, is a much-ado-about-nothing, perennial occurrence, as predictable as the April cherry blossoms. In the minds of many who live here, the attention this issue receives year after year in the West is curious, since it is such an afterthought here in Seoul, which lies some forty kilometers from the DMZ.
However, we ought to remind ourselves that in history, past events are not full-proof predictors of future occurrences, at least in the short-term. In the long run, there will always be conflicts between states for economic, political, and hegemonic purposes. But then, every major historical event is inherently singular. No one sees it coming until it happens. Determining who is the aggressor and who is the victim—and which media players are beating the war drums to drum up ratings—is an important albeit exhausting exercise. Let’s just say for the sake of argument that there is a lot of blame to go around on this issue—and a lot of valid opinions.
The effect on our psyche
Since perception is reality, we need to ask what the general perception about this state of affairs is and how it affects the common person living under the shadow of potential conflict. We have seen enough devastating military conflict in the rest of the world in the past few years that it has become part of our collective imaginations—a not-so-distant phantasm that grows more real with every move of the chess piece.
What effect these events have on the psyche of those living in Northeast Asia, and especially in Seoul, Pyongyang’s closest likely urban target, remains to be seen. No one living here wants to take part in the ‘experiment’ of thermonuclear war, or war of any kind for that matter, and thus heated opinions on the matter are ultimately justifiable.
So what do you think? What effects will these recent geopolitical developments in and around the Peninsula have on your life if you live in Korea? And if you are planning to visit in the near future, does this have any effect on your travel arrangements?
Since all opinions are useful at this [perennial] time of uncertainty, go ahead and tell us your thoughts.