The scandals destabilizing South Korean politics are creating new opportunities for North Korea.
South Korean lawmakers in the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Friday to impeach President Park Geun-hye for her alleged involvement in an influence-peddling scandal.
North Korea has been watching with keen interest, even, at times, reveling in the scandals crippling the South Korean president. Park regularly spoke of “cracks” in Kim Jong-un’s regime.
The vote to impeach Park, like the scandals themselves, is an opportunity for North Korea to tell the “North Korean people that the South Korean system does not work,” Lisa Collins, a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Korea expert, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
North Korea has released numerous scathing reports and commentaries on the political situation in South Korea.
“The south Korean people are now demanding the arrest and merciless punishment of traitor Park, not just her resignation,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) wrote Saturday, quoting the Rodong Sinmun.
Another report called Park a “vegetable president.”
The scandals have derailed Park’s efforts to put greater and greater pressure on the North Korean regime. “Quite a bit of government paralysis can be expected for the next few months,” Collins explained.
“If I were North Korea, I would be rubbing my hands with glee at the likelihood of a rudderless ship of state adrift with no timetable to bring it back on course,” Seoul-based correspondent Andrew Salmon told NK News.
Some people fear that Pyongyang will see Park’s fall as a chance to ramp up its aggressive behavior. The South Korean military has already been instructed to remain vigilant against possible North Korean provocations.
“There is a high possibility that North Korea’s military could make provocative acts,” explained South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman General Lee Sun-jin, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
“This is a perfect time for some North Korean shenanigans,” Robert Kelly, a Pusan National University professor, told The Washington Post.
While provocations from Pyongyang are always possible, the North may actually be much more likely to keep its head down.
Beyond using the South Korean president’s scandals to legitimize the North Korean regime, Pyongyang may want to use the disruptive South Korean political crisis to secure a more favorable North Korea policy position — one more conducive to its needs and interests.
Park’s unpopularity, demonstrated by her extremely low approval rating, the crowds of protesters that filled the streets in recent weeks and public dissatisfaction with her ruling conservative Saenuri party could increase support for liberal opposition parties.
If the Constitutional Court decides to oust Park, South Korea will elect a new president, potentially clearing the way for a liberal resurgence. A liberal shift in South Korean politics would serve North Korean interests, which is why Pyongyang may avoid unnecessary aggression.
“They can see the tide turning. Provocations can be used as rallying events for the conservatives,” Collins told TheDCNF.
The liberals typically favor cooperation and engagement, as well as balancing between China and the U.S. They are less likely to put the same kind of emphasis on the U.S.-South Korean alliance that Park and her party did.
Such a political shift could potentially compromise planned national defense projects, such as the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. The plan is opposed by North Korea, China, and Russia.
North Korea would probably welcome this type of change, as it “does whatever it can to weaken the U.S.-[South Korean] alliance,” Collins remarked.
For the time being, though, nothing has changed on the THAAD project, and the alliance appears strong enough to survive a political shuffle. Additionally, it is unclear whether opposition parties are prepared for an election.
North Korea appears to be waiting to see how the present situation shakes out.
The North has been particularly aggressive this year, conducting two nuclear tests and over 20 ballistic missile tests, yet it has not conducted any provocative tests in over a month. The North’s last test was Oct. 20, four days before the scandal broke.
The surprising U.S. victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who has cast a certain degree of uncertainty over future U.S. foreign policy, may have also caused Pyongyang to take a step back.
While North Korea is observing carefully rather than engaging in open aggression in violation of international restrictions, its current behavior does not indicate that North Korea has become less of a threat or less dangerous.
“North Korea is becoming more dangerous as time goes on,” Collins explained to TheDCNF, noting that Pyongyang is still determined to develop long-range, nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting American targets. “Nothing is going to stop it from pursuing this.”
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