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May 24, 2017

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Storm clouds swirling over Korean peninsula

UNITED NATIONS -- Thunder clouds are swirling over the Korean peninsula as a perfect storm of political instability and regional geopolitical challenges rumble through South Korea. North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, as well as Chinese bullying, have thrust the region into a dangerous cycle which could affect South Korea's hard won peace and prosperity. Events over the next six months will be crucial.

Political crisis has returned to South Korea, a vibrant if fractious democracy for over a generation. President Park Geun-hye, the once popular but tough president has been forced from office after a bitter and drawn out impeachment scandal. President Park, the now tarnished daughter of Park Chung-hee, the strongman who rebuilt the shattered South Korean economy, was a close American ally.

Elections slated for May will no longer be the polite formality as expected where former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would swan into the Blue House, but a tough knockdown contest between the now-discredited right and an ascendant left.

Not since the countdown to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics has there been such political tension.

Yet today's Korea faces a very different dynamic as young people have grown up in a safe, secure and prosperous society no longer shadowed by the Korean War of 1950-53 and the arduous rebuilding era of the 1960s and 1970s. The candle holding protesters are hardly the militant firebomb-throwing hyper political youth of the mid-1980s.

North Korea's nuclear tests and missile provocations continue. While the U.N. Security Council has slapped salvos of economic sanctions on the Pyongyang regime, the reality remains that the quaintly titled Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) holds workable, if rudimentary, nuclear weapons and is doggedly working for the delivery means through repeated rocket testing.

North Korea's communists pose a real and present danger not only to neighboring South Korea, but to Japan, the USA, and most especially American military bases in Japan and Guam. Before long the Hawaiian Islands and West Coast may be in effective range.

Responding to the emerging missile threat, the U.S. and South Korean governments have agreed to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to counter North Korea. The decision taken by the Obama administration is now being carried out by the Trump team.

The U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty with Seoul has offered both defense and crucial deterrence behind which South Korea's socioeconomic miracle flourished.

Though THAAD is a defensive system for the Korean peninsula, the People's Republic of China has vigorously opposed the ongoing deployment as posing a threat to the Chinese mainland!

Beijing has encouraged consumer boycotts of South Korean pop stars, TV shows, tourism, and businesses over initial THAAD deployments. Given that the PRC is South Korea's largest trading partner, Beijing's boycott has teeth. But such blunt tactics can also backfire, as the Koreans don't savor being treated as the errant "little brother."

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