The 2016 US Presidential Election and Korea

The forecast is for 2016 to be Washington D.C.’s busiest year. The presidential election, which occurs every four years, will take place on Nov. 8. Adding to that, next year’s presidential election will determine the new master of the White House, following the end of President Barack Obama’s eight-year presidency. The significance of this moment cannot help but be different from that of the 2012 presidential election. While it may determine a change of regime from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, if a Democratic candidate is elected, that candidate is expected to differentiate him/herself from the Obama administration.

Even today, Dec. 23 and only eight days before the new year, the status of the race remains a mystery. The Democratic Party decided early on to solidify former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s place, after she climbed the ranks to become the leading candidate, but in the Republican Party, 12 candidates are still fighting a chaotic battle. Although Donald Trump, the billionaire from New York, is more than 10 percent ahead in public opinion polls, an odd phenomenon continues: Not one election expert from Washington’s political circles has predicted his victory in the election. Even think tank experts are having difficulty properly answering the question, “Who will win?”

It is troubling for Korea, which views the Korea-U.S. alliance as the foundation for diplomacy and security. For key issues to be resolved, including cooperation on policy toward North Korea, the placement of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, and membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most important variable is the position taken by the next U.S. president, but Korea still cannot clearly grasp who this may be. High-level Washington diplomatic sources last month forecast that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would be strong candidates, but the only candidate with some remaining potential is Sen. Rubio, who is ranked third. Gov. Walker dropped out in the middle of the race, and former Gov. Bush is showing less than 5 percent support.

The North Korean nuclear issue has been completely pushed back. It was missing in the Democratic Party’s presidential debate televised on Dec. 19. During the Republican Party’s televised debate on Dec. 15, only one question focused on North Korea. The moderator asked, “North Korea announced that it has a hydrogen bomb. What would you do about it?”* The question only went to neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who have largely disappeared from public attention. It was a test question, aimed at measuring the diplomatic and security knowledge of political “outsiders.” In reality, the Obama administration shares the same lack of concern for the North Korean nuclear issue as the rest of America.

The problem is, as North Korea’s nuclear capabilities become stronger, Korea is the one that suffers from security concerns. Currently, the U.S. still has time before North Korea completes the development of long-range ballistic missiles that are capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, but Korea is already exposed to the possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack. Whatever happens in the U.S. presidential election, the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the U.S. has the important mission of catching the attention of candidates with the potential to be elected president.

With such matters at hand, Ambassador Ho-yeong Ahn and Minister of Political Affairs Hyeondong Jo — respectively ranked first and second in the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the USA — will each finish their third year in office. While there are no term limits in political posts, three years is normally considered a full term, so we are hearing much gossip about successors. Regular embassy appointments usually take place in February and August, but considering the custom for decisions to be made about two months in advance, and the state of the U.S. with less than one year remaining before the presidential election, the successors must have been confirmed by now. Even if the government appoints candidates who know how to efficiently and professionally utilize frontline diplomatic capacity, and who possess a solid political sense that can appeal to American politicians, the time is far too short. But the Blue House is not saying anything. This is the result of President Geun-hye Park’s unique style of personnel management, called “simmering.” I fear they will miss this window of opportunity after too much time mulling over the possibilities, reminding me of the Korean saying, “Making a bad move after a long thought.”

*Editor’s note: This question was paraphrased from a question by Wolf Blitzer, the moderator for the Dec. 15 Republican debate (

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