- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

South Korea’s parliamentary elections may have turned on domestic political and economic issues, but the stunning defeat for President Park Geun-hye’s party could also bring a major shift in foreign policy as Seoul faces soaring regional tensions and ever-expanding provocations from North Korea.

With her domestic agenda likely gridlocked through the final two years of her presidency, some analysts say Ms. Park will try to maintain relevance by focusing beyond South Korea’s borders — and that means closer coordination with Japan and the U.S. against Pyongyang.

South Korean analysts were still trying to digest the shock result as a fresh wave of North Korean missile tests seemed imminent. Dictator Kim Jong-un is celebrating the 104th birthday of his late grandfather Kim Il-sung, the nation’s first supreme leader, on Friday. Pyongyang has been known to mark the occasion with military muscle-flexing.

Victor Cha, who holds the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Thursday that Ms. Park is likely to focus on defense and security issues to stave off lame-duck status after her conservative Saenuri Party lost its governing majority in Wednesday’s parliamentary vote.

With the liberal Minjoo Party now calling the shots in the nation’s National Assembly, there will be “complete gridlock on domestic issues in legislature, and that’s what pushes presidents at the end of their terms to look toward foreign policy,” Mr. Cha said.

Ms. Park can be expected to focus on putting South Korea “in as good a national security position as she can and through tighter cooperation with the U.S. on missile defense, as well as more cooperation with Japan trilaterally,” he said.

But the election results may also constrict the president’s freedom to maneuver in the region.

Some among the South Korean left have been cool to the Park government’s attempts in recent years to ease long-standing tensions with Japan. But Mr. Cha noted Thursday that the president won’t need to go through the legislature to continue her pursuit of better cooperation with Japan on North Korea.

Whether the election results will affect the Obama administration’s talks with the Park government over the placement of a U.S. Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile shield in South Korea is also an open question. China has been critical of the proposed shield.

Summit test

Ms. Park is likely to get an early indication of her ability to recover next week when U.S., Japanese and South Korean diplomats gather in Seoul to discuss North Korea’s recent provocations.

The three nations have worked closely together since early January, when Pyongyang tested a miniaturized nuclear bomb. A subsequent satellite launch and series of missile tests prompted the U.N. Security Council to level biting economic sanctions against North Korea.

While Tokyo, Seoul and Washington have taken the lead on implementing the sanctions, big questions remain about China’s role.

“Whether these sanctions will have any effect, I think the answer still lies in Beijing,” said Christopher R. Hill, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Beijing has long stood as Pyongyang’s main economic and strategic ally, and Chinese officials have warned Seoul and Washington against deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense shield on the Korean Peninsula. Chinese officials say the move would only heighten tensions in the region.

But some analysts also see China’s patience with Pyongyang running short. Beijing has begun pursuing the U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang with unprecedented focus and aggression — even moving to limit the access of North Korean ships to certain Chinese ports.

Mr. Hill said Thursday that it’s still too early to tell how this week’s elections in Seoul will ultimately impact the North Korea situation.

Pyongyang’s propaganda machine, he said, is likely to “have some fun” with the result, pushing a narrative that South Koreans have “risen up against her because of her confrontational stance toward the North.”

Mr. Hill said he agreed with Korean analysts who saw the Saenuri Party’s loss as “more a function of domestic economics and people being sick of the infighting in the National Assembly, not unlike what we see here [in the U.S.] at the moment.”

The conservative Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said an angry public had “passed judgment” on the ruling party, whose image was damaged by intense infighting between Ms. Park’s loyalists and the party’s reformist wing.

Ms. Park, the daughter of former South Korean President Park Chung-hee, who held office from 1962 to 1979, had no immediate comment Thursday on the results.

In 2012, she was widely seen to have been elected for her promise to bring an economic transformation to South Korea, similar to what the nation experienced with industrialization during the 1970s and 1980s. But her efforts to boost the nation’s lagging services sector and foster creative industries such as technology startups have largely sputtered.

South Korea’s economy grew 2.6 percent last year, and the youth unemployment rate reached 12.5 percent in February, the highest since the government started keeping records in 1999. Household debt in Seoul rose to a record $1 trillion at of the end of 2015, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Kim Chong-in, interim leader of the victorious Minjoo Party and a former Park ally and adviser, said voters rejected “misguided” economic policies of Mr. Park and her party, according to the Reuters news agency.

The Saenuri Party had been expected to retain its majority of 157 seats in the National Assembly but ended up with 122 of the 300 total in the single-chamber parliament. The Minjoo Party won 123 seats, and the opposition People’s Party received 38.

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