South Korean President Park Geun-hye scrambled to head off a mounting political scandal by replacing her prime minister and finance chief Wednesday, raising concerns over the future of a key trilateral summit slated for later this year.
Park’s administration has been rocked by the scandal involving a confidante accused of meddling in state affairs, and the high-level reshuffle, which also saw her replace her public safety minister, was the latest attempt to quell surging public anger with the presidential Blue House.
The turmoil has reportedly left the Japanese government concerned that a trilateral summit this year that also includes China may be derailed by the growing crisis.
Japan, which is due to host the meeting for the first time in more than five years, is working to hold the summit sometime in December, reports have said.
A trip to Tokyo by Park, which would likely focus on reining in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, would also be her first visit since taking office in 2013.
But with the roiling political crisis threatening her government, and increasing calls for action by the public and opposition lawmakers, it could be difficult for her to make the journey.
“She may be unable to leave her country if she faces impeachment,” Jiji Press quoted an anonymous Japanese government source as saying.
Tokyo is also wary that a historic agreement last December between Seoul and its former colonial master to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the issue of the Korean “comfort women,” who were forced to work at wartime Japanese military brothels, could be undermined by the paralyzed Park administration.
With Park’s plummeting support rate, Japan likely fears she could wrap herself in the flag as a last-ditch move to cling to authority.
Euan Graham, a former charge d’affaires at the British Embassy in Pyongyang, and now an international security researcher based at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said a precedent for such a move had been set by Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.
Lee, who was himself ensnared in a scandal in the waning days of his presidency, embraced nationalism by becoming his country’s first leader to visit the South Korean-held, Japanese-claimed Takeshima islets, which are known as Dokdo in the South.
That move sparked a diplomatic rift with Tokyo.
“That’s what Japanese fear will be repeated in this case,” said Graham.
But, he said, “if nationalism is President Park’s last refuge, after replacing an entire cohort of her appointees, it may be that the nationalist policy vector is more likely to go towards North Korea.”
The political uncertainty could also push back a deal by Tokyo and Seoul to conclude a bilateral military information-sharing pact known as the general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) that would allow them to directly exchange information on North Korea.
Under Lee, Japan and South Korea were ready to sign the deal in 2012, but Seoul postponed it at the last minute due to domestic opposition.
“Japan is caught in a predicament here because the other lesson from the GSOMIA negotiation under Lee is not to leave it too late,” said Graham. “There is still some time to play with, but Japan cannot afford to put it totally on the back burner.”
The Park scandal centers on allegations that she allowed longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who holds no position in the government, to screen her speeches and have a voice in key decisions — including the appointment of her Cabinet.
Choi is currently being detained and questioned, but state prosecutors have said a formal request had been made Wednesday for an arrest warrant on charges of fraud and abuse of power, media reports said.
Since apologizing last week, Park, who has 16 months left in office, has given no hint that she is considering quitting — a move that would trigger an election in 60 days.
Despite a spate of scandals over the years, no South Korean president has ever resigned or been successfully impeached.
According to Graham, amid the uncertainty and turmoil, it is essential that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe keeps a tight leash on his Cabinet, which includes several outspoken hawks.
“The one thing he cannot afford is for one of his ministers to drop a clanger on comfort women,” he said. “That would leave Park no alternative but to recoil.”
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