By Troy Stangarone
After months of protests across South Korea that culminated in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, South Koreans will go to the polls on May 9 to select her successor. Regardless of which candidate wins the election, the upcoming presidency may be the most significant for South Korea since the transition to the opposition with Kim Dae-jung cemented the democratic ideal of the transition of power and he was thrust into managing what is known in South Korea as the IMF crisis. The next administration will come into office at time when South Korea faces a wide array of economic, political, social, and security challenges.
The next president will need to begin by restoring confidence in government. The impeachment of President Park has divided society and exposed the continuing ties between government and business that have left a legacy of scandal trailing each administration. Prior scandals have not always directly involved the president, but the impeachment indicates a growing intolerance in South Korean society for ever too close of relations between the government and business. Addressing this issue will mean the next administration will need to consider reforms in both government and the chaebol.
If restoring confidence in government were not challenging enough, the next president will come into office at a time when South Korea faces critical domestic and international challenges that will need to be addressed. The South Korean economy in many ways is at a crossroads. After years of success as an exporting powerhouse, exports have been largely stagnant in recent years and South Korea faces increasing competition from lower wage countries such as China which have cut into key sectors for South Korea’s economy such as steel and shipbuilding, while becoming increasingly competitive in consumer electronics as well.
The challenges from international economic competition are coupled with domestic economic challenges. South Korea’s rate of economic growth has continued to decline and is expected to only by 2 percent in 2018. As the economy slows, income inequality has risen and will likely only continue to do so the economy becomes more oriented around services industries.
To begin addressing slowing economic growth and income inequality, the next administration will need to focus on structural reforms and labor market reform. South Korea needs structural reforms to address overcapacity in troubled areas such as steel, shipping, and ship building. At the same time, reforms are needed in the labor market as well. South Korea’s current two-tiered system made of a well-protected class of permanent workers and temporary workers who have few protections has created rigidities in the labor market that have limited job growth, especially for the young.
South Korea’s economic challenges have also created social challenges. As South Korean society rapidly ages, young South Koreans have seen their opportunities narrow even with one of the highest rates of college graduates in the world. While facing decade long highs in unemployment, young South Koreans face concerns about their future in a slowing economy and in a society that they see as constraining their opportunities.
If the young have seen increasing challenges, South Korea itself faces impending problems from its rapidly aging population. In the years ahead, over the next administration the working age population is expected to decline to just under 36 million and continue declining in the years after while the overall population will continue to grow until 2030. This means an increasing percentage of South Korea’s population will be in retirement with fewer workers to support them. This challenge is compounded by South Korea having the highest level of old age poverty in the OECD despite President Park having worked to improve the social safety net.
South Korea’s international relations may not be any less complex than its domestic challenges. On top of the agenda will be North Korea. While that will not have changed from prior administrations, Pyongyang has significantly advanced its nuclear weapon and missile programs under Kim Jong-un. As a result, the strategic situation could significantly change under the next administration should North Korea successfully deploy not only a nuclear deterrent but a viable second strike capability.
As a result, the administration may find its options for dealing with North Korea constrained, both by North Korea’s progress on its weapons programs and the policies of regional states. Relations with China have soured over the decision to deploy THAAD to defend against North Korean missiles, and China’s use of economic pressure may leave the next administration with a Scylla and Charybdis type dilemma of accepting significant economic harm or weakening South Korea’s defenses against North Korea.
Managing this situation will require close relations with the United States and Japan, both of which could be problematic if divisions over how to handle North Korea develop, or in the case of Japan historical issues complicate relations. While the Trump administration so far has been more conventional in its approach to North Korea than many foreign policy issues, Seoul and Washington will need to ensure that they do not diverge on how to handle North Korea. At the same time, there could be tension in the relationship, as the Trump administration is taking a harder position on trade and has indicated that it may review the KORUS FTA.
Whoever South Korea elects as president in May will face a more fluid domestic and international environment than prior South Korean presidents, one shaped by the impeachment and the need to enact reforms. While South Korea has gone through difficult economic times, such as the Asian Financial Crisis, or faced challenging relations with the United States or China, it is the degree and the number of challenges that South Korea may face over the next five years that make this election so consequential.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from sinano1000’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.