The fall of Park Geun-hye, the twilight of Washington in South Korea

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By: Marcelo Zero / The Dawn News / March 10, 2017

Let’s start by making something clear: Park Geun-hye, the destitute President of South Korea, is the exact opposite of our President Dilma Rousseff.

She is the daughter and political heir of Park Chung-hee, a dictator that led South Korea with an iron fist for almost two decades (1961-1979). He implemented the current political and economic model of the country based on (1) a total alignment with US interests (2) a warmongering attitude towards North Korea and ‘communism’, (3) the creation, through tax incentives, of big economic conglomerates known as chaebols, which deal in exports, (4) the super-exploitation of workers and heavy-handed repression of unions (5) creation of a political and partisan system that is completely dominated by economic power and characterized by a widespread, systemic corruption and (6) complete domination over media and information.

During Park Chung-hee’s administration, tens of thousands of people were tortured and imprisoned simply for disagreeing with the regime. In fact, disagreeing or criticizing the regime was forbidden by law. Students and workers who dared to protest were immediately detained, tortured and sentenced. After Park Chung-hee’s death at the hands of his security chief in 1979, South Korea remained under a strong military dictatorship, which elected presidents in rigorously-controlled electoral colleges, like last year in Brazil, and with Washington’s total support.

Photo credit: Korea.net
Photo credit: Korea.net

The first election by the people arrived in 1987, after violent protests over the murders of several students and political leaders. Even so, results were heavily influenced from the outside. Two weeks before the elections, when the opposition candidates were leading the polls, a strange incident occurred: flight 858 of Korean Air invaded the Soviet airspace and was shot down. The commotion caused by the incident and the rumors spread about the alleged participation of North Korea led Roh Tae-woo, the candidate of the old regime, to victory.

Since then, South Korea is living in a hybrid situation, which combines formal democracy with a political system tightly controlled by the chaebols and by conservatives who longed for Park Chung-hee’s regime.

Just four years ago, in 2013, the Supreme Court of South Korea acknowledged the crimes of the dictatorships of Park and his successors, after pressure by a number of torture survivors. One of them, Oh Jong-sang, was brutally tortured and imprisoned without communication for three years. His crime? Criticizing Park’s regime while chatting on a bus.

The now destitute president had been elected by followers of her father’s regime, with the undivided support of Washington and the chaebols. Her party, the Liberty Korea Party, which is aligned with Washington’s interests and ideologically stuck in the Cold War, seeks to confront with North Korea and opposes the growing influence of China and Eastern Asia. Viscerally corrupt, Park Geun-hye partnered with her lifelong friend, Choi Soon-sil, to ask for tens of millions of dollars from groups like Samsung—who paid eagerly. These weren’t donations for electoral campaigns—which, like in the US is a widely-accepted form of influence—but bribes destined to fill her personal coffers.

Up until recently, those spurious relations between big economic groups and Korean conservative politicians were sufficiently tolerated. But two factors shifted the situation.

The first one was recession. Although South Korean economy had reacted well to the crisis during 2010 and 2011, since 2012 exports had been falling. Greatly dependent of exports ships and oil-derived products (the country doesn’t have oil fields, but it does have many refineries), its economy is being affected by the stagnation of world commerce and by the falls in the prices of gasoline and diesel. China’s growth reduction also slowed down South Korea’s economy.

Many pro-system Korean economists are now wondering whether the chaebols are going to be able to change the current configuration of the economy in order to begin a new cycle of growth. Another question pertains Washington’s demand to maintain a constant state of confrontation with North Korea, which is rightfully seen as a factor of political instability and a limit to growth.

The other trigger was precisely due to the nature of the relation with North Korea. The younger generations of South Korea feel detached from the Cold War ideology that’s solidly represented by many of the Washington-backed, conservative politicians—including Park Geun-hye. Many of them want dialogue with Pyongyang and dream of the reunification of the country, which is officially at war since 1950.

Thus, the new generations aren’t willing to passively fulfill Washington’s commands and the undemocratic collusions between chaebols and conservative politicians. They want a renewal of the political system and more independence for South Korea regarding its foreign policy.

Thus, the destitution of the South Korean president is a defeat for Washington and a victory for Beijing, which wants peace in the Korean peninsula and desires to have more influence in Eastern Asian politics.

Actually, China is eroding the traditional US (and Japanese) influence on East Asia. For example, Philippines (which was another US bastion in the region like South Korea) is now making moves to approach China. This means China could end up controlling the so-called South China Sea—a highly strategic area through where around 50% of the world’s sea commerce passes, and which has over 8 billion barrels of oil in its subsoil.

The main reaction to geoeconomic and geopolitical changes caused by the strepitous ascent of China during Obama’s administration was the TPP, which was intended to strengthen the Washington’s political and economic ties with Southern Asia to halt China’s advance.

But since Trump dropped the TPP, the US strategy has become focused on the military level, which is very dangerous.

The US wants to install in South Korea a modern anti-missile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), which detects missiles in high altitude and destroys it with anti-missiles that travel eight times faster than sound. China denounces that this system isn’t truly destined to prevent missiles from North Korea—whose technology is outdated—but to take down any missile coming from China.

Everything indicates that the fall of Park Geun-hye will be only the first chapter of a long dispute between the US and China in the Korean peninsula and East Asia.

Meanwhile, China is winning, but Washington won’t accept this relative defeat in the region without a backlash. The US is maintaining the Korean peninsula in a Cold-War situation, even if its people disagree and express it through the polls.

The US have been a hazard for democracy around the world for ages, as the history of Latin America proves. And now Trump, who is going to militarize the US diplomacy even more, with his xenophobic and primitive view of the planet, is a geopolitical bomb ready to go off. His understanding with Putin has proven to be frail and partial, as shown by the recent escalade of the Ukrainian conflict.

Without control, no anti-missile system will solve the political problem. A potential dialogue within the Korean peninsula may be the first victim of Trump’s strategic counteroffensive. Or actually, the second one—the first was the putschist foreign policy that the US implemented against the BRICS and regional integration. At least Koreans are smart.

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