South Korea voted to impeach its president. What happens next?

Close ties between the US and South Korea could become less so under new governments in both countries. The ouster provides an opening for the center-left South Korean opposition, which has criticized trade and military ties with the US.

Jeon Heon-Kyun/Reuters/File
South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks during an address to the nation, at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, in November.

South Korea’s parliament impeached President Park Geun-hye on Friday for her role in an influence-peddling scandal, with well over the required two-thirds majority of lawmakers – including dozens of members of her own party – voting to oust her. 

The decision was greeted rapturously by thousands of protestors who had gathered outside of the national assembly over the past week to demand the president’s dismissal and reforms that would cut away at ties between the government and a deeply embedded class of business leaders. 

Ms. Park can technically still hang onto power: The country’s constitutional court must uphold the vote, and the president says that she will wait “with a calm and clear mind” for the court to make its decision, in a reversal of last week’s promise to resign if she lost in a parliamentary vote, according to The Washington Post. At stake in the case were allegations that Choi Soon-sil, a lifelong confidante of the president, had leveraged their relationship for illicit financial gains of about $70 million. Park allegedly leaked classified documents to her and helped her extract payments from large, government-linked companies. 

The vote may bring changes to the historically close ties between the United States and South Korea, with potentially far-reaching implications for US interests in Asia. The scandal provides an opening for the center-left South Korean opposition, which tends to criticize the deepening of trade and military ties with the US and favors improving relations with China and North Korea, notes The Wall Street Journal. And those ties with the US may also be under scrutiny from a Trump White House. 

In July, South Korea announced that it would deploy a US-backed missile-defense system that has upset neighbors like China – who viewed it as an unwelcome incursion by the US – and helped precipitate a flurry of missile tests by North Korea.

“A missile interceptor system worries China because it might provide early warning of Chinese missiles directed against the United States in the fantastic and highly unlikely event of a nuclear confrontation between those two countries,” Nicholas Kitchen, assistant professor in the United States Center at the London School of Economics, told The Christian Science Monitor in February. 

President-elect Donald Trump has at times sounded reluctant to extend such military backing to South Korea, at times even suggesting that South Korea and Japan, another regional ally, should consider building up their nuclear arsenals as a means of deterring North Korean aggression. In March, Mr. Trump told The New York Times that he might withdraw US troops from both allied countries if they didn’t increase their contributions to the cost of housing the 28,500 servicemen stationed on military bases there under the terms of a defense treaty.  

Trump has also criticized a 2012 free-trade deal struck with South Korea as unfair for US businesses – a complaint shared by members of the South Korean opposition, as well as labor unions and farmers’ groups who have joined public demonstrations to agitate for more protectionist trade policies, notes the Journal. 

“A change of power in South Korea and Mr. Trump’s election could create instability in bilateral ties for some time,” Park Cheol-hee, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University and no relation to President Park, told the Journal.

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