As the United States ushers in a neofascist ruler into office, South Korea is gearing up to give theirs the boot. Protest organizers expect one million on the streets this Saturday to demand the resignation of Park Geun-hye. Train and bus tickets to Seoul are sold out in major cities across the country as people head to the capital for this weekend’s historic demonstration. Park’s approval rating has crashed to an embarrassing single digit, and sixty percent of the South Korean population says she should step down.
Park Geun-hye is a key U.S. ally in what the United States considers a critical region for its geopolitical and economic interests, so how are U.S. officials looking at the current situation in South Korea? White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest’s recent comment seems to suggest they are already looking ahead at the possibility of Park’s resignation and feel confident that she will be replaced by someone to their liking. “One of the hallmarks of a strong alliance is that it remains durable, even when different people and different personalities are leading the countries,” he said about South Korea during a press gaggle aboard Air Force One.
If leaked classified cables from William Stanton, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in South Korea, are any indication, we can be sure that U.S. officials are watching the situation unfolding in South Korea with keen interest. Describing the political situation in South Korea immediately prior to the presidential election there in 2007, Stanton wrote-
Lee [Myung-bak]’s staffers are trying their best to characterize Park as not quite the unblemished princess she claims to be. … Perhaps even more damaging to her image as the maiden who sacrificed herself in the service of the nation upon the assassination of her mother, Park has been linked to the late Choi Tae-min, a charismatic pastor. Rumors are rife that the late pastor had complete control over Park’s body and soul during her formative years and that his children accumulated enormous wealth as a result.
Stanton details every allegation of corruption, rumors of personality defects and dirt hurled at each other by political opponents in the run-up to the election, then concludes, “For us, the good news is that this is shaping up to be an election in which the United States is far from the vortex, quite unlike the 2002 election which had us in the middle of the whirlpool following the death of two schoolgirls accidentally struck by a USFK vehicle. … So whoever wins in December, we are likely to see continuity in U.S.-Korean relations.”
For U.S. officials whose main concern is preserving the US-ROK alliance and securing U.S. interests in the region, the current shaman-inveigled Park Geun-hye debacle is not as simple as the 2007 election and is likely to have their heads spinning. Park is effectively isolated and her resignation seems a matter of time, but if she steps down too soon, it doesn’t buy them enough time to ensure that she will be replaced by someone to their liking. If she steps down too late, on the other hand, crescive anger on the streets may become too hot to handle.
Plus, soon they’ll have a recalcitrant in the White House. Many South Korean officials have wrung their hands over Trump’s comments that he is open to negotiating directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and that South Korea should either pay more for U.S. protection or mind their own defense. Although Trump tried to allay their fears this week by reaffirming U.S. commitment to defending South Korea, just what his policy will be on Korea, or any other issue for that matter, is anyone’s guess.
With so many uncertainties, we can be sure that those with a vested interest in preserving the US-ROK alliance are busy plotting and maneuvering behind the scene to safeguard U.S. interests in the region. Once-stalled talks between Seoul and Tokyo on a military intel pact are suddenly on an accelerated track. Amidst the chaos of cult worship allegations and police raids on presidential aides, the South Korean Defense Ministry quietly held two rounds of working-level talks with its Japanese counterpart to discuss the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement- a deal left unsigned in 2012 due to overwhelming opposition from South Koreans but aggressively pushed by the United States, which considers military cooperation between the two historic adversaries vital to its interests in the region.
The Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea also announced last week that it will deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile battery in South Korea within eight to ten months – in complete disregard of mounting opposition from South Koreans, including small farmers in Seongju and Gimcheon who have been holding nightly candlelight actions since July to block the weapon system from being deployed in their towns.
Anti-American sentiment peaked in South Korea after the assassination of Park’s dictator father Park Chung-hee when his replacement Chun Doo-hwan, with a tacit green light from the United States, crushed the democratic aspirations of the South Korean people by massacring hundreds in the southern city of Gwangju. Let us hope history does not repeat itself. Let us make sure Park the daughter will not be replaced by yet another U.S.-backed authoritarian, who will turn history backwards and trample on the rights of working people. As we mourn the loss of progress in the United States, let us stand with the people of South Korea, who themselves have endured four years of oppressive rule and are now on the verge of breaking through to a new era through people power.