US struggles to keep control of developments in the south of Korea
The impeachment and sacking of President Park Geun-hye in South Korea (ROK) has enabled national elections to take place in early May.
The elections, however, are unlikely to resolve the political crisis within the country or the problems of their diplomatic relations with the United States, which include:
• Longer-term economic relations with China, at the expenses of those presently with the US;
• The siting of a US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in the ROK which has proved highly divisive;
• Present US-led military exercises with ROK troops and others that have heightened tensions on the peninsula and elsewhere across the Asia-Pacific region.
In early March the ROK Constitutional Court upheld a parliamentary vote to impeach President Park last December. The president had previously been removed from effective office following a major corruption scandal. The court decision was merely a formality to enable elections to take place within sixty days.
With the formal removal from presidential office Park Geun-hye, however, has lost political immunity from criminal charges arising from a huge corruption scandal involving millions of dollars from corporate dynasties paid into bogus bank accounts. Other figures from the conspiracy have already been denied bail and remain in detention. Following the court decision prosecutors have stated alleged crimes committed by Park were 'grave' and 'that she should also be arrested'. (1)
What is particularly significant about the charges being laid is evidence of widespread blackmail by senior government officials to siphon money from companies who 'told investigators they could not refuse because they feared disadvantage such as state tax investigations'. (2) In ROK legal terms, bribery convictions are punishable by life imprisonment.
The corruption scandal has already provided millions of protesters with evidence of US involvement, linking defence and security provision with corporate issues in the classic definition of the military industrial complex: Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong together with four other top executives were indicted in late February on 'multiple charges including bribery and embezzlement over the scandal that led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye’. (3) Samsung, as a corporate body, has dominated the ROK economy for decades.
The Samsung corporate dynasty also has close links with the US, which include being the largest producer of Smart-phones in the world with sales of over 300 million each year and one of the biggest foreign investors into the US. The former is particularly significant in light of recent revelations of US intelligence agencies being able to 'remotely hack, control and remove data from popular Smart-phones' and other Samsung products including televisions. (4) Millions of Smart-phone users have possibly had their privacy and that of their social circles compromised without their knowledge or consent. It is unlikely US intelligence agencies developed the necessary technology without Samsung involvement. In fact, it is more likely the Smart-phones were initially designed and manufactured to comply with US intelligence requirements.
Secondly, Samsung has huge influence within the US economy. Just days before the election of Trump to the US presidency last November, Samsung issued a public statement about their plan to invest over one billion dollars in their Austin, Texas, semiconductor plant 'to boost production of processor chips for Smart-phones and other devices'. (5) Samsung has also had recent high-level discussions with Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio and South Carolina about expanding US production. (6)
Behind the developments, however, lie far more revealing matters. The ROK, historically, was developed by the US for rapid deployment facilities for the defence of Japan. In recent times the ROK has developed stronger links with China as a rising regional and world power. The development has therefore challenged US hegemonic interests in the ROK. Recent US diplomacy toward the ROK has tended to steer the country toward Washington as opposed to Beijing. The foreign policy has met with many problems which began with the last presidential election.
The election of President Park Geun-hye in 2012 was clouded by officially planned corruption from the very beginning: it was eventually established the ROK intelligence services had been involved in a smear campaign of Moon Jae-in who was regarded as a potential threat to US interests. The scandal, which involved a total of 1.2 million tweets, eventually led to an official indictment and highly unfavourable publicity about US-ROK diplomacy and how they had planned to promote Park Geun-hye as president. (7) It is unlikely ROK intelligence would have behaved in such a manner without consultation with the Pentagon.
Soon after President Park Geun-hye entered the Blue House problems arose: one crisis following another were badly handled, meeting with opposition protests which eventually unified to remove the president from office. Recent developments mark a definable period in the history of the ROK.
The ROK, historically, has been a secretive, closed society with a long legacy of State-sanctioned repression. Most credible opposition figures were forced into clandestine existence, political opposition groups were also fragmented. An older generation of Koreans also fought for many years for their limited democratic system which exists today. Cracks, in the political system, are now appearing with a pro-US puppet president being toppled by popular protests. It has been a major victory for progressive forces in the ROK and a landmark in popular struggle.
The recent developments, however, have not gone unnoticed by Canberra-based pro-US commentary in the Australian newspaper noting 'events in Seoul have complicated the crisis' for western allies and dealings with both the northern DPRK and China. (8) Decision-makers in Australia, under the tutelage of the US, remain clearly critical of the developments: the Park presidency, despite its corruption and ineptitude, was their preferred choice. It is not difficult to establish the reason.
The decision by the US to site its THAAD system in the ROK proved highly unpopular with most Koreans. The system forms a strategic part of western military and security provision. Opposition to the siting of THAAD formed part of the popular protest against President Park Geun-hye. The presidential administration was initially reluctant to accept the defence and security system. Influence, however, was brought to bear. It was noted in commentary about the issue that the 'US was piling on pressure on South Korea's government to accept the role in the US-led missile defence network in the region'. (9)
Recent developments in the ROK have therefore had some considerable bearing upon Pentagon planning. The initial planning US was for the THAAD system to become fully operational by the end of 2017, coinciding with President Park Geun-hye completing her term of office. (10) The US has already entered into crisis mode to deal with the situation: the THAAD system is, at present, being installed and 'scheduled to be fully operational by the end of April'. (11)
The behaviour of the US and their haste to install the THAAD system has revealed its importance for western defence and security planning as a strategic link into a far bigger regional and global system. Pentagon military planners are therefore desperate for the ROK-based link to be operational before forthcoming elections in early May. The range and capacity of THAAD extends to well beyond the northern DPRK into neighbouring countries. Concerns have already been raised from both China and the Russian Federation about the system being used to 'destabilise the regional security balance'. (12)
Other matters have also heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula.
In early March the US began joint annual military exercises with their ROK counterparts in Operation Foal Eagle. In recent years the exercises have become more aggressive. Official media releases from the US Defence Department leave little to the imagination. At the opening of the 2017 Operation Foal Eagle exercises it was noted 'we are practising invading them' with reference to the northern DPRK. (13) According to the statement, 'Foal Eagle is a training exercise aimed at maintaining and demonstrating the ability of the US alliance to wage war against North Korea'. (14)
The military planning of the US-led military exercises has also included US fighter planes based at Iwakuni together with references to 'using US Special Forces to launch surgical strikes'. (15)
Military strategists have also planned counter-insurgency operations to follow the bombing of the DPRK. In May 2016, ROK Special Forces together with their counterparts from Australia and Singapore undertook training exercises which included 'planning a mock city with multi-storey buildings for soldiers to hone their urban warfare skills'. Reference was also given to their training to 'storm and seize control of a terrorist hideout'. (16)
For most ROK citizens, enough of this warmongering is enough. There is little benefit for ordinary people in time of war. In the forthcoming May elections Moon Jae-in is favourite to win the presidency. He is former pro-democracy activist from the Democrat Party and has already issued a political agenda which has included the abolition of the intelligence services and pursuing policies similar to previous President Roh Moo-hyun which included open diplomacy with the northern DPRK together with other progressive issues. Moon Jae-in has also opposed the siting of the US THAAD system in South Korea.
Decision-makers in Canberra clearly face the prospect of having to deal with an incoming Moon Jae-in presidency in the ROK which will cause problems with regional western defence and security planning: Intelligence analysts, within the corridors of power, appear to have already made an assessment.
A recent terse statement from Canberra about Moon Jae-in revealed their diplomatic concern. An official media release was handed to the compliant, mainstream Australian press. It stated that there is 'much more than just South Korea's security at stake in the crisis'. (17) Another similar release noted those around Moon Jae-in 'are deeply critical of the close strategic relationship South Korea has with Washington and its allies, including Australia'. (18)
It is important to remember the Korean peninsula is an area where the Cold War continues to burn very hot. And is likely to do so for the foreseeable future. We should be on our guard, and offer any support we can to those millions of people who have demonstrated their protests on the streets of Seoul and other ROK cities.
1. S Korea prosecutors push to arrest former president, Australian, 28 March 2017
3. Samsung scion indicted in Rasputin scandal, Australian, 1 March 2017.
4. TV is watching you – CIA busted, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 March 2017; and, CIA hacking leak a boon for foes, Australian, 9 March 2017.
5. Samsung to expand US production, Australian, 10 March 2017.
7. South Korea's ex-spy chief indicted in election scandal, South China Morning Post, 14 June 2013.
8. Editorial, Commitment to Asia crucial, Australian, 16 March 2017.
9. US Missile Defences, CBS News, 3 April 2014.
10. US to deploy THAAD, Reuters World News, 4 November 2016.
11. Kim keeps going ballistic, Australian, 14 April 2017.
12. China in no mood to go quietly as hermit cracks policy facade, The Weekend Australian, 11-12 March 2017; and Only N Korea needs to fear missile talks, Mattis warns, Australian, 3 February 2017; and, Military strike on the table to stop N Korea, warns Tillerson, The Weekend Australian, 18-19 March 2017.
13. Missile test a 'practice strike on US bases', The Weekend Australian, 11-12 March 2017.
15. Pyongyang tensions simmer as US struggles to formulate policies, Australian, 17 March 2017.
16. Singapore, expand military facilities, Straits Times, 9 May 2016.
17. Editorial, op.cit., 16 March 2017.
18. Potential crisis looms in Korea, Australian, 12 December 2016.
(The writer of this article has had a long time interest in political developments on the Korean peninsula. He was also responsible for producing a critical parliamentary submission for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra about the (then) proposed FTA between Australia and the ROK written from a trade-union perspective.)