Asia Institute director Emanuel Pastreich says geopolitical uncertainties between the U.S., China, and North Korea could lead to great political and economic instability in the region
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INTER: South Korea is continuing to feel the aftershocks of the impeachment and ouster of its conservative president, which followed months of protest after she was implicated in corruption. On Wednesday, South Korea’s prosecutor summoned former conservative President Park for questioning in the country’s far-reaching bribery scandal. All this comes at a time when tensions are escalating between North and South Korea and the United States. South Korea, under pressure from the U.S., agreed to deploy the controversial THAAD missile defense system and is carrying out joint operations, which includes hundreds of thousands of troops with the United States. This prompted Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ye to question, quote, “If the two sides — referring to the U.S. and North Korea — are really ready for a head-on collision.” A snap election must be held in two months and the Liberal Party is highly favored. That said, it’s still unknown what other factors may play into the process. Joining us today to discuss all of this is Emanuel Pastreich. He’s a director of the Asia Institute in Korea. Thanks so much for joining us. EMANUEL PASTREICH: Thank you. INTER: You’re coming to us from Seoul, Korea, so you’re there on the ground right now. EMANUEL PASTREICH: I am. INTER: Describe what the scene is right now, because on the one hand, you have domestic instability in South Korea, there’s going to be a new president elected within two months. At the same time, things are… some have described it as the worst situation between North Korea and the United States and South Korea in some time now. What does it feel like to be there? Describe the mood and the scene there. EMANUEL PASTREICH: Well, I think, of course, the protests have died down and people are back to work. So, it is normal in that respect. However, these two aspects, both the increasing tensions with North Korea, and also combined with U.S. relations with China, which have of course become much worse under the Trump administration. And China has responded by limiting economic business interactions with South Korea, which has had a tremendous impact on the economy. You can see the economy, I think, is being seriously affected now. So, I think there’s a lot of anxiety and concern about what will happen. There is a little bit of hope that a new president, and may be the end of the 10-year Conservative presidencies in a row, that this might bring some new opportunities. But I think over all, its overshadowed by a certain degree of angst and foreboding concerning the future particularly of the Korean Peninsula, but also that as the Trump administration is increasingly had to take some more bellicose view of China. And has downplayed, I think, the previous efforts to engage and encourage cooperation, that there are deep, deep worries. INTER: And so, what party does this favor, this instability, favor? Because we’ve seen in many elections around the world instability leads to the rise of the right. And, of course, the right seems to be quite discredited now, although, you know, supporters of Park remain steadfast. So, I want to ask you: what could the larger geopolitical implications be if there is a liberal or progressive candidate that wins the election coming up? EMANUEL PASTREICH: Right. Well, Korea, I think, is somewhat different from the United… well, I wouldn’t say it’s different fundamentally, but that there hasn’t been the rise of a charismatic right wing crypto-populist candidate in Korea yet. We don’t see anyone like that. I think Korea as a whole has undergone a very serious issue of superannuated society. One of the most rapidly aging societies in the world, and that support for President Park now – or former President Park – is really limited, and primarily with people in their… say, over 60, who remember how her father, President Pak Chong-hee, who was a very authoritarian and also charismatic political leader built Korea up, that there’s a certain nostalgia for that. But I think the odds of a Conservative win — the parties, by the way, in Korea, change rapidly. It’s not like the United States, where we’ve had Republican and Democrats for the last 130 years. But rather… or more – but rather, depending on the election, people will make out new names. But the politicians don’t change. The conservative side seems unlikely to win, but there is a scenario, because there are two large parties. There’s the People’s Party of Ahn Cheol-soo, and then there’s the Minjoo, or Democratic Party, and if both parties run, both field candidates, and they both do well, you have a three-way split, there is an opportunity or a possibility that the conservatives might be able to win a third term. INTER: And so, you know, to be clear, what would the impact be? What would the result be if there is a hot conflict between North and South Korea? Because we’ve seen these rising tensions — the North Korean missile tests, which are happening. Now there are these joint operations that are happening between South Korea and the U.S. Hundreds of thousands of troops are taking part in that. So, if there is a hot conflict, even with this missile defense system they’re testing now, from what I’ve read it’s only about 50% effective. So, just for our viewers to understand, what would that impact be? EMANUEL PASTREICH: Well, I think people are more concerned about it now than they have been previously, in part because the Trump administration is both inexperienced and, unfortunately, unpredictable. Being unpredictable is a positive if you’re in pro-wrestling. But in international relations, and other fields, it’s much better to be predictable. So, there is an increased risk. I think we don’t know, there have been incidents on the DMZ previously, right? With shootings or the use of artillery. And so, some small contingent incident is possible. But something larger, a bigger conflict, certainly cannot be ruled out. But actually, since we haven’t had one on an enormous scale since the Korean War, doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and there are forces that… I think what’s most worrisome is the United States used to have a much more stable policy. But we’ve been invading a lot of countries, as you know, recently, so it’s sort of stable architecture of a divided North and South Korea, and a mutually economically engaged United States and China, and a relatively peaceful and not militarily ambitious Japan, that these sort of set factors for the last 50 years are all in play now. None of them are guaranteed as stable. If there actually was a conflict — I’m not a fortune-teller, so I can’t tell you what would happen — but I think the danger that it would lead to some confrontation including China or that the United States’ response, like THAAD, for example, THAAD of course is not an active attack on North Korea or on China, but it’s very present. It’s perceived as a threatening decision by Beijing. INTER: And, finally… I’m sorry to interrupt, but we just have a minute left. We wanted to ask you, it’s on a lot of people’s minds. Why impeachment removal of a conservative president in South Korea, but not the United States yet. Talk about the parallels and the differences. EMANUEL PASTREICH: Well, it’s a fascinating question. And Korea has been relatively transparent, and the Constitutional Court that rendered the ruling, was all made up of appointees by the conservative government. So, I think there was a real responsiveness to the overwhelming anger and outrage among the population. And there were continuous, very well organized demonstrations, peaceful demonstrations. The United States, we hear a lot about impeachment, but the actual process, or the potential, you just don’t really see anything happening, at least that’s my impression. So, however, the larger geopolitical implications of this shift, because Korea is both divided in North and South, but also conservative, progressive within the country, we still don’t know, and there are some worrisome aspects of this. INTER: All right. We want to thank you so much for joining us. EMANUEL PASTREICH: Thank you. INTER: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network. ———————— END