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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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South Korea in Crisis

Jan. 12, 2017

What are the challenges that South Korea faces in the midst of the current political turmoil there? A political vacuum has emerged, as President Park Geun-hye has been suspended from office. Meanwhile, tensions with North Korea continue and diplomatic rows have flared up with Japan and China. And Seoul's relationship with its ally, the US, is increasingly uncertain as the Trump presidency is set to begin next week.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans took to the streets demanding President Park step down. The reason for the unrest was President Park's closest friend, Choi Soon-sil, who was given access to a range of Park's draft speeches and policy documents.

Choi was arrested on charges of abuse of power, attempted fraud and extortion. Lawmakers couldn't defy the people's will, and passed an impeachment bill against Park. Many members of Park's own party supported her impeachment, and she's now been suspended from her duties.

Immediately after becoming acting president, Hwan Kyo-ahn ordered the military to strengthen surveillance and security against the North.

"I will humbly listen to what people are demanding, and try my best to create stable policies for our future," Hwang said.

South Korea doesn't want to face the threat alone. A senior diplomat reaffirmed his commitment to work with other countries including Japan to deal with North Korean threats. But an issue dating back to World War Two is getting in the way of that partnership.

Tokyo is upset over a new statue in front of its consulate in Busan. It was installed by a South Korean civic group and symbolizes people referred to as comfort women. Tokyo claims it violates an agreement with Seoul to move past the matter.

"I believe South Korea needs to fulfill its own obligations. Honoring the agreement is a matter of national credibility even if the government changes," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said.

Japan reacted by recalling its ambassador and halting negotiations on a currency deal. South Korea's government stressed it will work to improve ties.

There's also another country South Korea needs for defense cooperation. Officials are worried about the alliance with the US, as Donald Trump is on the verge of assuming the presidency.

He hinted during his election campaign that he might withdraw American forces from South Korea, and talked about Seoul shouldering more of the cost of hosting them.

Then there's another uncertain security issue and this time, backlash is coming from inside South Korea. People are upset about an American missile defense system called THAAD that Park Geun-hye had agreed to set up. Many people who live close to where it's planned to be set up oppose it.

No Sung-hwa is one of them. He protests the system daily. He didn't have any interest in politics, but this system changed his mind. He's angry he found out about THAAD from the media... not the government.

"The Park administration didn't even give us a basic explanation as to why THAAD is needed in our country," No says.

The government has been trying to persuade locals the system would better defend the country against the North but that hasn't worked.

"There's been growing distrust of the government, so now we don't believe anything they have to say," No says.

And opposition has spread around the country, with more and more demonstrations against it. Polls show a large percentage of South Koreans don't want it.

"THAAD is not only a problem here. It's threatening peace and stability in the whole Korean Peninsula," says Cho Seung-hyun, who is with an organization called Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea.


NHK World correspondent Hiroki Yajima joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio from Seoul.

Beppu: Hiroki, can you tell us more about the Korean public's perception of the THAAD deployment?

Yajima: A recent poll shows a majority of respondents oppose early deployment of the defense system. Those opposed also feel it will worsen relations with China, which sees its radar as a way for the Americans to spy on its territory.

Beppu: Hiroki, opposition coming from China has been pretty strong. Have there been any recent developments?

Yajima: Well, last week, 7 Korean lawmakers from the main opposition party made a special visit to Beijing after they were invited by the government. And the Chinese side reportedly pressured them to stop THAAD's deployment.

China is also trying to rattle South Korea's popular entertainment industry operating in China, and Koreans see it as retaliation.

Shibuya: And on the American side, the 2 countries have worked together for decades on defense. Where do things stand with the incoming Trump administration?

Yajima: It looks like South Korea is trying to shore up its relationship and make sure it'll continue to be close. Earlier this week, South Korea’s chief of National Security went to Washington to meet with some of the new administration. He discussed THAAD and South Korea’s position on it, and he met with the incoming national security adviser. As we heard in the report, Trump has talked about getting South Korea and other allies to pay more for American defense. Although one expert I spoke to isn't too worried about that.

"I don't think the burden-sharing issue alone can shake the alliance. Trump is a businessman, so I think there is always the possibility of a compromise."
Kim Joon-hyung / Professor, Handong Global University

He also thinks Trump's stance on North Korea will be strong, but he urges Seoul to not rely too heavily on Washington, and instead restart its own dialogue with Pyongyang.

Beppu: The ongoing political vacuum in Seoul is clearly having effects on South Korean diplomacy. What could happen next?

Yajima: After Park's suspension from duty, people have become much more vocal against agreements pursued by the president, with countries such as with Japan, over comfort women or the early deployment of THAAD. In both cases, many South Koreans say these agreements were made despite opposition from the people.

If Park wasn't suspended, she could have stopped the new statue from being erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. But Prime Minister Hwan, who is temporarily acting as President, cannot make his own judgment over issues that divide the nation.

The political fate of President Park is uncertain, and how the government will handle rising opposition is still unknown.

Depending on the response, there is a possibility that the international credibility of South Korea could be at risk. The presidential election will be held by the end of the year. But until then, South Korea will continue to be politically unstable.