The arrest in February of the Samsung Electronics Co heir Lee Jae-yong, on bribery charges, indicates the scope of the problem. With all major presidential candidates emphasizing the importance of fixing the chaebol problem, changes on this front are possible.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the next president will face a foreign-policy puzzle that perplexed Park for most of her tenure. Her successor will need more diplomatic acumen to stabilize relations with Japan, China and Russia, while simultaneously working to denuclearize North Korea and thus reduce the threat Kim Jong-un’s regime poses to the region.
Here, the wildcard is US President Donald Trump, who is creating his own brand of uncertainty in Asia. How Trump chooses to deal with North Korea, in particular, will be an early test for South Korea’s next leader.
If, as I suspect, the Trump administration turns to tightened sanctions and dialogue, leaders in Seoul will be able to adjust accordingly.
There will still be scope for agreement if political leaders on all sides are willing to listen. The US’ deployment in South Korea of an advanced anti-missile system is a case in point. While the move has angered China’s leaders, there remains room for compromise, especially if the system’s deployment is made temporary and linked to North Korea’s denuclearization.
South Korea has experienced — and survived — political and economic upheaval before. After all, it was Park’s own father who, in the 1960s and 1970s, helped to build a system that did little to discourage the corrupting links between politicians and chaebols. The weak financial institutions and shady corporate sector that grew from his legacy conspired to make the pain of the 1997 financial crisis even worse.
Then, as now, failure at the top prompted voters to demand a new direction. Conservative leaders’ collective inability to insulate South Korea from the events of 1997 cleared the way for a liberal opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung, to assume the South Korean presidency in 1998.
South Korea is very likely on the cusp of another political housecleaning. However, regardless of who arrives at the Blue House in May, their job — and the job of their party — will be to tackle the challenges that Park was so ill-equipped to address.
Yoon Young-kwan is a former minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Korea and professor emeritus of international relations at Seoul National University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate