Pardoning South Korea's former president puts the US in a delicate position

The pardon of South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye — ousted, impeached and imprisoned in the Candlelight Revolution of 2016-17 — confronts U.S. policy strategists with a perplexing question. How much real support should they show South Korean President Moon Jae-in while he presses hard for an end-of-war declaration before Korea’s presidential election in March?

Moon’s decision to free Park today from a hospital was a shrewd move that bolsters the prospects for Lee Jae-myung, the candidate of his left-leaning Minju, or Democratic Party. Lee had been faltering in the polls. By freeing Park, Moon deflated a rightist campaign of sympathy for her as a woman caught up in a scandal not of her making. Now Lee is edging ahead.

Hard-core leftists, not unexpectedly, denounced freedom for Park, who has served four years and nine months of a 22-year sentence for corruption and influence-peddling, but Moon softened the attack from the left by also releasing Lee Seok-ki, a former lawmaker found guilty and jailed in 2013 for planning a revolt while Park was president. The revolt, he told adherents, would be timed for North Korean invasion. Treated as a hero by leftists and reviled as a traitor by rightists, Lee also was found guilty of embezzling funds from his political party.

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By granting amnesty for Park, Moon adroitly threw a grenade into conservative ranks. Yoon Suk-yeol, the nominee in the presidential race for the conservative People Power Party, might want his followers to forget what he did to Park, but he cannot avoid his past as a zealous prosecutor. As prosecutor-general early in Moon’s presidency, he pursued the investigation that landed Park, daughter of the late South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, in jail.

Yoon made a show of welcoming freedom for Park, saying he’s “truly sorry politically and emotionally” for going after her “while doing my job,” but he’s probably even more sorry that the latest polls show him falling behind Lee after having commanded a wide lead a few weeks ago. Sentiment among undecided voters appears to be shifting back to Lee, despite questions about his role in a real estate scandal while he was mayor of Seongnam, a city near Seoul.

For the U.S., the timing of Moon’s pardons makes their own dealings with him extremely delicate, if not difficult. For months they’ve been hemming and hawing about Moon’s quest for U.S. support of a declaration that the Korean War is over. America might not have a problem signing a joint statement to that effect, but South Korea wants the U.S. to agree to a version that also would be acceptable to North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea sparks US condemnation with latest missile launch Overnight Defense & National Security — US delivers written response to Russia North Korea fires two more missiles amid tensions in region MORE and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

U.S. diplomats know that if Lee gets elected, he’ll likely be more insistent than Moon — who cannot succeed himself under Korea’s “democracy constitution” — about appeasing North Korea. The strategy for the U.S. has been to put off serious talk about a new agreement with North Korea on the grounds that the North isn’t responding to requests for dialog. The U.S. may believe it can manage to delay the discussion until after the election.

That strategy made sense, since Yoon, as the frontrunner, has said repeatedly that he does not think a new agreement is a good idea — unless or until Kim makes substantive moves toward giving up his nuclear program. Last month, Yoon told journalists for foreign news agencies that while the North “refuses denuclearization, bolsters its nuclear armaments and continues provocative missile tests, it’s accepted as an obvious fact that we have to upgrade our sharing of reconnaissance and intelligence assets and military cooperation” with the U.S. and Japan.  

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This assessment fits with the U.S. military view that joint military exercises are essential — that U.S. and South Korean troops should stage war games in the field, not just on computers — and that China poses an increasingly dangerous threat around the region, especially the Korean peninsula. Gen. Robert Abrams, who retired in July as commander of U.S. Forces Korea, raised concerns in Seoul by saying in a Voice of America interview that the Chinese “have increased their presence in and around the Korean Peninsula since 2010” and that it will be necessary to update the strategic planning guidance for American and South Korean forces.  

Those remarks fly in the face of assurances by Moon that the U.S., China and South Korea have “agreed in principle” to an end-of-war agreement. The inference is that North Korea has only to come aboard and the deal will be as good as done. Just what the Americans really have agreed to, though, is far from clear or certain. The U.S., striving to maintain rapport with Moon and his aides, so far appears to have been humoring him with cordial, unsigned and unannounced assurances.

National security adviser Jake SullivanJake SullivanOvernight Defense & National Security — Inside Austin's civilian harm directive Republicans again call for Oversight hearing on Afghanistan withdrawal Biden's first year: A mirage of gender parity MORE has talked about “sequencing.” He said at one White House briefing: “We may have somewhat different perspectives on the precise sequence or timing or conditions for different steps, but we are fundamentally aligned on the core strategic initiative here and on the belief that only through diplomacy are we going to really, truly be able to effectively make progress.” It seemed a convoluted way of actually saying nothing.  

By freeing Park, Moon may force the U.S. to think again about how to get around the issue without badly fraying the already edgy U.S.-South Korea relations. One question is whether Washington should hurry up and agree to phraseology that might be acceptable to Moon and manage to give Kim the impression that returning to talks would be a good idea.  

The need to please Moon assumes a certain urgency as long as Lee Jae-myung has a real chance of winning the election. To judge from his past calls for lifting sanctions and calling off war games, Lee likely would be more eager than Moon to come up with a deal that’s capable of generating headlines like the agreement that former President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE signed with Kim in Singapore in June 2019, in which they certified the pursuit of a “nuclear-free” Korean peninsula. 

Then again, the U.S. should ask, if we do agree to a draft declaration that the liberal Moon might like, would the conservative Yoon lose face and votes? If Moon can talk about a show of success, then swing voters might just choose Lee, who likely will want to embellish the terms of a deal that would make Kim Jong Un most happy.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.