It goes without saying that the northern half of the Korean Peninsula has been a cauldron of political instability for some time. The world has become accustomed to, and in some regards, desensitized to the saber-rattling, and political crises in North Korea. So, imagine the surprise and alarm that has been spreading across the region since this major political crisis broke out in the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The ongoing crisis is threatening to topple ROK President Park Geun-hye and encase the nation in political paralysis for the foreseeable future. In short, North Korea no longer holds a monopoly on political instability on the Korean Peninsula. The ROK is suffering now as well, and the ramifications of a politically weakened South Korea are not in the best interest of that country or its allies.
Park is embroiled in a major political crisis at present. The president, and her associates are battling allegations of influence-peddling, and extortion. The main character in this drama is Choi Soon-sil, a longtime Park friend and confidant. Park relied on her for everything from policy advice to wardrobe choices. She has been accused of using her influence and status to raise funds and gain influence for herself and family members. On Sunday, prosecutors formally indicted her on charges that include extortion and abuse of power. The prosecutors also indicated that they consider Park to be complicit in the crimes. That perspective would make the president a suspect in the case and not a witness. According to ROK law, the president cannot be charged with a crime while in office, however, prosecutors have said they will continue to investigate Park.
Opposition leaders have begun calling for her impeachment, though the effort has not gained traction and likely will not. If an impeachment motion fails to pass, or if the Constitutional Court strikes it down, Park’s chances of surviving the crisis will increase markedly. Calls for Park to step down are increasing in number and volume though. South Korean citizens have not remained impartial and on the sidelines during this crisis either. Park’s approval rating is hovering around 5% and for the last four weekends hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken to the streets to call for Park’s resignation in the largest demonstrations seen in the ROK since the 1980s. On Saturday, an anti-president rally in Seoul brought out upwards of 500,000 people.
Whether Park resigns or remains in power, the nation’s domestic and geopolitical fortunes appear bleak. If she stays, opposition parties will move to ensure that nothing of value gets done for the rest of her term. There is serious concern that opposition parties will move in the National Assembly to block any military intelligence sharing agreement between the ROK and Japan. The basing of THAAD in-country will also face new scrutiny and runs the possibility of being scuttled altogether.
Then there is North Korea. The political crisis in the South has raised serious concerns about Kim Jong Un attempting to exploit the situation for North Korea’s gain. At the very least, Park’s woes have presented Un with a propaganda gift and the opportunity to gloat about the failure of democracy in the south. The exulting increases by the day as Kim and his aides undoubtedly are discussing strategy behind the scenes. North Korea is walking a fine line despite the troubles to the south. If it opts to make a geopolitical move, the action cannot be overly provocative. That would shift attention away from the crisis and provide Park with an opportunity to dig in and rally the ROK around the flag to face the challenge. Nor can Kim move timidly and run a risk of losing credibility at home or abroad. He is facing his own challenges and the wrong move could bring the North Korean house of cards tumbling down.