South Korea cri­sis: What’ll North do?

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

These are eu­phoric but anx­ious days for South Korea, as the heady im­peach­ment of a deeply un­pop­u­lar pres­i­dent leaves the coun­try with­out a rec­og­nized leader at a time of mil­i­tary ten­sions with nu­clear-armed North Korea. And with Py­ongyang smart­ing from a fresh round of UN sanc­tions and never shy about em­bark­ing on a dan­ger­ous game of brinkman­ship, the one thing the coun­try doesn’t want to dis­play is vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

But so con­sid­er­able are the pow­ers vested in the ex­ec­u­tive in South Korea that Fri­day’s im­peach­ment strip­ping them away from Pres­i­dent Park Geun-Hye in­evitably leaves a size­able vac­uum that must seem all too tempt­ing to provo­ca­teurs in Py­ongyang. It’s a con­cern that was swiftly ad­dressed by Prime Min­is­ter Hwang Kyo-Ahn, the un­elected for­mer pros­e­cu­tor who has tem­po­rar­ily taken on the role and au­thor­ity of act­ing pres­i­dent.

At an emergency cab­i­net meet­ing on Saturday, Hwang said he had in­structed the mil­i­tary to be extra vig­i­lant to any move by the North to ex­ploit the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. “The govern­ment is car­ry­ing out all mea­sures nec­es­sary to pre­vent any govern­ment vac­uum and ease the peo­ple’s anx­i­ety,” Hwang said. “Up un­til now ... no spe­cial de­vel­op­ment from North Korea has been re­ported. But all civil ser­vants should work with a sense of ten­sion for the time be­ing,” he added.

‘Veg­etable pres­i­dent’

North Korean state me­dia, which has is­sued highly per­sonal attacks on Park in the past, has clearly en­joyed wit­ness­ing her down­fall and the at­ten­dant po­lit­i­cal chaos. On Saturday, the rul­ing Work­ers’ Party news­pa­per Rodong Sin­mun called the im­peached Park a “veg­etable pres­i­dent”, and said her con­tin­ued re­fusal to re­sign was the act of “an old witch and psy­chopath with­out equal”.

But is ridicule likely to lead to provo­ca­tion? Most an­a­lysts be­lieve the North will re­sist the temp­ta­tion and adopt a wait-and-see strat­egy - not only to­wards the sit­u­a­tion in the South, but also to­wards Wash­ing­ton and the in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion of US pres­i­dent-elect Donald Trump. North Korea has a ten­dency to try and test new US pres­i­dents, but Trump is such an un­known quan­tity - es­pe­cially on foreign pol­icy - that it might choose to hold off for a while.

“It’ll want to spend time feel­ing out the pol­icy di­rec­tions of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion,” said Yang Moo-Jin, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of North Korean Stud­ies in Seoul. “In the mean­time, it’s un­likely to stage a fresh nu­clear test which might set Trump on a hard­line course early on, ”Yang said.

Enough test data

North Korea has con­ducted two nu­clear tests al­ready this year, and mul­ti­ple mis­sile launches in its push for a weapon ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing a nu­clear war­head to the US main­land. “North Korea’s weapons test­ing time­line is pri­mar­ily driven by its am­bi­tions to in­crease mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties, and the re­cent tests give its sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers much tech­ni­cal data to work with,” said LeifEric Easley, a re­search fel­low at the Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies in Seoul. “So Py­ongyang may wait to see if a pro-en­gage­ment politi­cian emerges from South Korea’s po­lit­i­cal tu­mult,” Easley said.

Park took a hard line with Py­ongyang through­out her pres­i­dency, re­fus­ing to of­fer any con­ces­sions un­less the North made a tan­gi­ble com­mit­ment to de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. In a shock move, she even closed down the Kaesong joint in­dus­trial zone - a rare North-South co­op­er­a­tive project that had sur­vived pre­vi­ous cross­bor­der crises. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “knows ex­actly what he is do­ing,” said Koh Yu-Hwan, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence Pro­fes­sor at Dong­guk Univer­sity. “There is no rea­son for him to stage provoca­tive acts and change the at­mos­phere in the South in favour of con­ser­va­tives,” Koh said.

The North is also pre­par­ing for a se­ries of key an­niver­saries, in­clud­ing the 75th and 105th birth­days of late lead­ers Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung in Fe­bru­ary and April re­spec­tively, as well as the 85th an­niver­sary of the army’s found­ing on April 25. In the past, such dates have been marked by strate­gic weapons’ tests, but Yang pre­dicted that Py­ongyang would avoid be­ing overly con­fronta­tional. “I think the fes­tive mood will fa­vor sta­bil­ity over dis­tur­bance,” he said.

How long?

The prob­lem is that the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty in South Korea could carry on for much longer than Py­ongyang is will­ing to wait. Park’s im­peach­ment has to be ap­proved by the Con­sti­tu­tional Court - a process that could take six months. If it con­firms her ouster then a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion must be held, but that could take an­other 60 days. — AFP

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