In South Korea, the impeachment of Park Geun-hye was made official by the Constitutional Court on Friday. The body ruled unanimously to uphold the removal of the embattled South Korean President, who had been impeached by a parliamentary vote in December, 2016. Park’s fall from power stems from her involvement in the corruption scandal that has dominated South Korea for the better part of a year. Park was impeached on charges of receiving millions of dollars in bribes from South Korean businesses and abusing her powers in an elaborate scheme with her longtime friend and unofficial adviser Choi Soon-sil. The political scandal was the largest in South Korean history and marked the first time a democratically elected South Korean president has been removed from office. Park is now open to possible prosecution, something she was immune to during her time in office.
As the dust settles from this scandal, South Korea looks ahead to an uncertain political future. New presidential elections must be held within the next 60 days. 9 May, 2017 is the expected date for the elections to begin. Until then, former Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn will continue performing in the role of Acting President. Park’s shameful exit from the national political stage presents the possibility of a shift in South Korea’s political balance to the opposition. Conservatives are in disarray following her removal and the consensus is that Moon Jae-in, a liberal who lost to Park in 2012, stands the best chance of emerging as South Korea’s next leader.
If Moon, or another opposition candidate takes power it could bring a major change to South Korea’s dealings with North Korea, and the nation’s relations with the United States. The opposition parties in Seoul favor more engagement and less confrontation with the North. Moon was a member of President Roh Moo-hyun’s administration in the 2000s. Roh was the creator of the Sunshine Policy, a rapprochement effort that involved trade and cultural exchanges with North Korea. The policy was ended by conservatives after it became apparent that North Korea was expanding its nuclear and missile programs in the same time period. Politicians like Moon are also wary of what they view as an increased US military footprint in the region.
Timing, as always, is everything. This political crisis and the aftermath comes at a delicate time in the region. The United States has begun the deployment of THAAD missile batteries to South Korea in response to continued North Korean missile tests. The deployment has brought harsh criticism from China, along with warnings of a possible East Asian arms race in the near future. North Korea, along with its missile firings, is embroiled in a diplomatic crisis with Malaysia which arose from the murder of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur last month. South Korea’s turmoil is adding additional ambivalence and tension to a region in desperate need of cohesion at the moment.
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.
To the casual observer, North Korea must appear to have an unlimited supply of ballistic missiles and rocket fuel. For the third time in a month, North Korea has conducted a ballistic missile test. This time it was with a pair of No Dong IRBMs. The first one exploded shortly after launch while the second missile landed in the Sea of Japan roughly 150 miles west of the Japanese coast inside of Japan’s exclusive economic zone. In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it an “unforgivable act of aggression that represents a grave threat to the security of Japan.”
On 19 July, 2016 North Korea test fired three SCUD type shorter range ballistic missiles and earlier in the month a sub-launched ballistic missile was test fired but failed early on in flight. North Korea’s missile tests generally come as a counteraction to military or diplomatic moves by the United States, South Korea or Japan that Pyongyang regards as distasteful. The July tests were presumably made in response to South Korea’s decision to deploy the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) system.
The most recent test firings come a month after Kim Jong Un was placed on a list of ‘sanctioned individuals’ by the US. North Korea stated that the action ‘crossed a red line’ and was essentially a declaration of war.
The latest posturing by North Korea leads us to wonder about the internal pressures confronting the Kim Jong Un regime. The missile tests, coupled with the increasing bellicose tone coming from Pyongyang may suggest that Jong Un fears his hold on power is becoming less secure. Lashing out against the United States and other enemies in the region to divert domestic attention away from the deteriorating situation inside of the DPRK has been a tried and true gimmick for North Korean leadership for decades. How effective it is at the present time cannot be gauged accurately.
Suffice to say, the situation in North Korea requires close observation in the coming weeks. Between North Korea and China’s latest moves with regards to the South China Sea, the Western Pacific is becoming a very tense place.
The UN Security Council has adopted a stringent set of new sanctions against North Korea, after a month of raucous behavior by Pyongyang which included the supposed test of a thermonuclear device and a thinly disguised test test of a banned long range missile. The sanctions are far more expansive compared to previous sets, which included a widely accepted link to proliferation activities. The new sanctions have removed this precondition, in essence taking away any presumption of innocence.
The sanctions include inspection of all goods going into and out of North Korea by air, land and sea, places strict restrictions on the North’s supplies of aviation fuel for its air force, and bans the sale of all conventional arms and military hardware to Pyongyang. There are a host of other equally strict sanctions included in the resolution, leaving no doubt that this is a punishment.
China has done a 180 with regards to its dealings with North Korea. The reluctance by Beijing in the past to apply pressure to Kim Jong Un is gone. The possible deployment of US THAAD missile batteries to South Korea possibly played a role in this reversal. Whether or not China remains committed to the sanctions remains to be seen.
How Pyongyang responds to the resolutions and sanctions remains to be seen. Either way, expect to see North Korea lash out in some way in the near future.
The ceasefire that has been in place between the Syrian government and opposition groups since Saturday appears to be holding, despite claims from senior opposition officials that government forces were endangering the deal through attacks against their groups. All parties involved in the ceasefire, from the US and Russia to the UN agree that there have been some incidents and steps are being taken to deal with them. However, the incidents are nothing that appear to have the strength to endanger the ceasefire.
That could change soon, however. Syrian President Bashir al-Assad has said that he is making every effort to keep the peace despite opposition groups violating it ‘within the first hour.’ The government’s restraint will not last forever, he stated in an interview published on 1 March by SANA. With so many opposition groups involved in the conflict, a consistent worry is that a single violation…real or alleged…..by one opposition faction could provide Assad and his allies cause to declare the ceasefire broken and resume offensive operations against all groups.
North Korea has been quite active over the last seventy-two hours or so. A successful satellite launch that led to condemnation around the world and concern that diplomatic concessions may have to be made by the US and its allies. Twenty-four hours following the launch, NORAD and USSTRATCOM officials confirmed that the satellite has malfunctioned and is tumbling out of control. Then, on Tuesday morning, Director of National Intelligence John Clapper revealed that North Korea has resumed plutonium production at the Yongbyon reactor.
Kim Jong Un appears to be following the strategy pioneered by his father and using saber-rattling to squeeze quite favorable concessions from the global community. North Korea takes the stability of Northeast Asia hostage and demands ransom. The strategy has worked far too often in the past, however, this time around it might not. The UN Security Council has condemned the launch and Pyongyang’s neighbors are no longer taking chances regarding Kim Jong Un and his regime. South Korea and the US have begun talks on deploy the American THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) system to Korea. South Korea, Japan and the US are moving to place effective sanctions in place against North Korea. Washington is also pushing Beijing to put more pressure on its erstwhile ally.
With primary elections underway in the US, expect to see the politicians address the North Korean issue more directly in the near future.