The year 2017 -- which we dare to call a year of uncertainty -- will pose daunting challenges to the nation at home and abroad. The challenges will be so tough that how we respond to them will determine our fate for many years to come.
The darkest, thickest cloud of uncertainty hangs, of course, over the fate of President Park Geun-hye, who plunged the nation into a crisis.
Part of the cloud will be cleared when the Constitutional Court makes a ruling on the parliamentary impeachment of Park. We hope and expect the justices to reach a consensus at the earliest possible time, but when and what verdict will be made is by no means certain.
A bigger problem is that whatever ruling the top court makes -- in favor of Park or not -- will not end the crisis caused by the influence-peddling and corruption scandal perpetrated by Park and her civilian confidante Choi Soon-sil.
Constitutional Court ruling
The Constitutional Court’s overturning of the parliamentary impeachment -- as it did in the 2004 case of the late President Roh Moo-hyun -- would invite strong public backlash. In view of the intensity of the public anger demonstrated by the anti-Park street rallies, public protest would surely be immense and could stir social unrest.
An upholding of the impeachment -- which would oust Park from her office right away -- would pose a formidable challenge to the nation as well. Among other things, it would hasten the election of a new president.
From the case of Park, we know that having sufficient time does not necessarily guarantee that voters will choose the right person. Nevertheless, two months to select a new president is too short for both candidates and voters.
There is also a possibility that a hastily arranged election would prompt an earlier-than-expected political realignment involving, among others, the new conservative party which broke away from the ruling Saenuri Party and former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Alliances and breakups will abound, further compounding the already unpredictable presidential politics.
The biggest foreign policy challenge in 2017, as usual, will come from North Korea, which is believed to be in the final stage of developing nuclear missiles.
Thae Yong-ho, the former No. 2 diplomat in the North Korean embassy in London, said recently that Kim Jong-un hopes to complete a nuclear development program by the end of this year, and that Pyongyang will conduct more nuclear tests, taking advantage of the political instability in South Korea and the inauguration of a new administration in the US.
The start of a new administration in Washington always poses a challenge to Seoul to fine-tune their alliance and joint stance on North Korea. But few new US presidents have posed tougher challenges to Seoul than Donald Trump.
Trump has already expressed his negative view of the South Korea-US military alliance, calling Seoul a “free rider” and demanding it to bear a larger financial burden for hosting 28,000 American soldiers.
Trump’s comments on North Korea also testify to his unpredictability: He once called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un a “lunatic,” but later said he was willing to meet Kim “over a hamburger.” This alone indicates that Trump’s North Korea policy could vacillate between strong-arm and appeasement approaches.
The expected deterioration of Sino-US ties under the Trump administration will also weigh heavily in South Korea’s relations with both superpowers. Seoul officials will find it difficult to strike a balance between security-focused ties with the US and the economy-focused ties with China.
Adding to the political and foreign policy woes is the gloomy outlook for the Korean economy. The situation is so serious that even the government -- which tends to be more optimistic than private think tanks -- set the growth target to 2.6 percent for 2017, the first below 3 percent level since the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis.
Challenges will come from all fronts: The US is set to continue to raise interest rates and Trump’s protectionist trade policy would strain Korea’s already-struggling exports. Domestically, the nation has yet to restore competitiveness of major industries like shipbuilding and steel, boost domestic consumption and investment while coping with problems like household debt, the housing bubble and youth unemployment.
Overcoming all these challenges in 2017 will not be easy. But this nation has demonstrated its resilience and capability to turn crises into opportunities many times before. Just recall some of the past crises we have overcome: the Korean War, the toppling of the dictatorships of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis and the 2008 global financial crisis.
We indeed are heading into a year of uncertainty, but we should still be hopeful and confident we will be able to tide over the challenges and make this year better than 2016.