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President Park’s Impeachment and the Future of U.S.–South Korea Relations: Background on the Issues

The South Korean Parliament impeached current president Park Geun-hye on December 9 after months of political turmoil under charges of extortion and allowing unelected confidants to influence major presidential decisions and policymaking. President Park’s firmness on North Korea and her prioritization of cooperation not only with the United States but also increasingly with Japan were highly welcomed by Washington, and her impeachment has created major questions about the future of these relationships.

The South Korean Constitutional Court will have six months to deliberate on the impeachment vote, but if passed, a new election would take place within 30 days. Park’s massive decline in favorability—even before the recent scandal that led to her impeachment—has elevated the popularity of potential presidential candidates who see pro-China, pro–North Korea engagement, and perhaps a less U.S.-focused government in Seoul, as more conducive to South Korean interests.

This shift in South Korean politics comes at a time when U.S. president-elect Donald Trump has raised questions about the alliance because of perceptions that the United States has been doing too much for South Korea. While not yet concrete policy, this view contrasts with popular South Korean perceptions that have precipitated the collapse of the Park government—namely, that its pro-Washington stance has compromised South Korea’s internal and external security.

The following NBR publications provide a rich background on the current political situation in South Korea and identify key elements that will affect the dynamic of the United States and South Korean alliance in the coming months as both states undergo political change:

In “Relocating Trilateralism in a Broader Regional Architecture: A South Korean Perspective,” Yul Sohn assesses the trilateral U.S.-Japan-ROK relationship from a South Korean perspective, including a discussion of South Korea’s ties to China and the ways in which historical events have shaped contemporary positions.

Chung Min Lee, in his Strategic Asia chapter “Challenges to South Korean Power in the Early 21st Century,” assesses South Korea’s national capabilities and draws implications for the region and the United States. Lee finds that while external challenges like North Korea and the rise of China continue to attract South Korea’s attention, growing domestic problems must also be addressed as South Korea moves forward.

In Asia Policy 21, the article “Is South Korea in China’s Orbit? Assessing Seoul’s Perceptions and Policies” by Jae Ho Chung and Jiyoon Kim considers the theory that under President Park Geun-hye’s guidance South Korea has been more and more susceptible to China’s influence.

In “Between a Rock and Hard Place: South Korea’s Strategic Dilemmas with China and the United States,” also published in Asia Policy 21, Ellen Kim and Victor Cha focus on the relationship between China and South Korea and examine how four key strategic dilemmas facing South Korea vis-à-vis China will implicate regional and U.S.-ROK relations.

The essay “North Korean Exceptionalism and South Korean Conventionalism: Prospects for a Reverse Formulation?” by Sung-yoon Lee assesses the various positions of Kim Jong-un, President Obama, and the then newly elected president Park Geun-hye.

In advance of President Park Geun-hye's October 2014 visit to Washington, D.C., NBR experts identified the central challenges affecting the relationship between the United States and South Korea: NBR Voices.