Embattled South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s surprise move to offer a strings-attached resignation could induce a prolonged leadership crisis just as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump looks to form a national security team capable of reining in an increasingly assertive North Korea.
In her third apology to the nation, Park said Tuesday that she would leave her fate in the hands of the country’s parliament amid questions of a swirling influence-peddling scandal that involved a longtime confidante.
But the move, which effectively puts the ball in parliament’s court, leaves South Korea adrift in uncharted territory as the North makes progress in its nuclear and missile programs and a new, inexperienced U.S. leader grapples with how he will best deal with a recalcitrant Pyongyang.
“We have never seen simultaneous uncertainty about governance in both South Korea and the U.S.,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. “This has serious foreign policy implications and is a ripe situation for North Korea to exploit with another provocation.”
Trump has recently alluded to the North Korean nuclear issue as a major challenge facing the United States, a stance that appears to have solidified after the Obama administration warned him that it considers the issue the incoming White House team’s top national security threat, media reports have said.
The president-elect has, however, made contradictory statements about how he would approach the issue, including calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “bad dude” and a “maniac” while saying he would be willing to meet him over “hamburgers” to discuss rapprochement.
Trump has also suggested that South Korea and Japan ought to be able to defend themselves and that U.S. forces might leave both countries, comments he has since walked back in phone calls and meetings with the two countries’ respective leaders.
The president-elect’s decision-making is also likely to hinge on who he taps for the key posts of secretary of state and defense. For secretary of state, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton are some of the leading candidates. All have taken hard-line positions on Pyongyang, with Bolton, perhaps the most extreme, calling life in the country a “hellish nightmare.” At the Pentagon, retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis appears to be the favorite for defense chief.
But regardless of his national security team, Trump is likely to find the North Korean problem as intractable as his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who has struggled to carve out a coherent path toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Pyongyang has stoked concern in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington this year with its more than 20 missile launches and two nuclear tests — including its most powerful to date.
“Trump has no foreign policy experience, which means he is ignorant. That also means he is pliable. Malleable. He could learn,” said Sung-yoon Lee, an assistant professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “At the same time, much of Trump’s North Korea policy will be determined by Pyongyang’s actions. The Kim regime sees itself as the party wielding the proverbial carrot and stick.”
Still, added Lee, there are risks, but also opportunities.
“That he has surrounded himself with hard-liners doesn’t necessarily mean a protracted confrontation with Pyongyang,” he said.
Lee pointed to the first administration of President George W. Bush as an example of why this association may not translate into conflict, noting that while Bush branded Pyongyang part of the “axis of evil,” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and North Korea’s first nuclear test soon silenced the numerous hard-liners in his camp.
“In both rhetoric and action, the U.S. pursued a bellicose foreign policy toward its adversaries,” Lee said. “However, once North Korea escalated with its first-ever nuclear test on Oct. 9, 2006, Bush, overwhelmed by the war in Iraq and a political hit in congressional elections, caved to the Kim regime,” making a number of concessions.
“Needless to say,” Lee added, “Pyongyang continued to march down the nuclear path despite such concessions from a ‘hostile’ or ‘hard-line’ U.S. administration.”
As for the dramatic events in Seoul over the past several weeks, Pyongyang has watched with keen interest as the political crisis has unfolded.
It has wasted no opportunity to lambaste Park in state media for her role in the scandal involving longtime friend Choi Soon-sil, who prosecutors say used her cozy relationship with the president to extort cash from the nation’s biggest conglomerates. But it has also refrained from seizing on the chaos to launch more ominous provocations.
“Of course, Pyongyang is watching closely and will try to exploit the situation if the leadership believes they can gain by doing so,” said Daniel Pinkston, an East Asia expert at Troy University in Seoul.
But Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Pusan National University in South Korea, said that while he was somewhat surprised at Pyongyang’s restraint, this was likely due to fears that a provocation could rally support in the South around Park — just when the North wants her gone.
“She has been tough on Pyongyang, and North Korea likes it when the left is in power,” Kelly said, alluding to the widespread belief that Park’s ruling Saenuri Party, stung by the scandal, would suffer a resounding defeat at the hands of its left-wing rivals in any post-resignation elections.
A left-leaning government, Kelly said, would mean “sunshine, subsidies, accommodation,” a reference to the Sunshine Policy espoused by former liberal President Kim Dae-jung that aimed to soften North Korea’s attitudes toward the South by encouraging interaction and economic aid.
Still, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s calculus could quickly change if he sees an opening.
“To refrain from provoking with a weapons test at this opportune time, in the coming weeks, would be a folly, perhaps even an indication that Kim Jong Un is not entirely sane,” the Fletcher School’s Lee said.
“Conventional wisdom may suggest that North Korea’s provocations at a chaotic time like this would galvanize the South Korean people to stand up to Pyongyang,” he added. But “it doesn’t work like that. South Korea has grown rich. It has too much to lose by escalating with the North. Crisis management and damage control are the default — or preferred — options.”
Any attempt by Park to ride out the scandal could also be met with further scorn not only by the opposition, but from an increasingly angry public, as well.
In a raw display of public anger, hundreds of thousands of protesters have flooded into the area near Park’s office in central Seoul to demand her resignation over the last five weeks — including record crowds Saturday.
“Many people will see this as Park’s maneuver to buy time because she knows the conservative and progressive parties will have a tough time agreeing on anything,” Georgetown’s Kim said of Park’s Tuesday announcement.
Kim said a number of decisions could tie up Park’s imminent departure.
The conservatives and progressives will need to make decisions on many issues, including the timing of a resignation, whether it is a resignation with or without impeachment, whether it is an “honorable resignation” as Park’s supporters have proposed, and whether to reform the Constitution regarding presidential terms, Kim said.
Although the nation’s three main opposition parties blasted Park’s move as a “ploy,” vowing Wednesday to continue their impeachment push in the National Assembly, or parliament, they still need at least 28 votes from the anti-Park faction of the Saenuri Party to reach the two-thirds majority necessary for the motion to pass the 300-seat body.
But after Park’s nationally televised address Tuesday, some Saenuri lawmakers are apparently softening their stances, saying no to impeachment and yes to constitutional reform, said Kim. What’s more, even if impeachment legislation passes, uncertainty at the Constitutional Court, including the impending retirements of a number justices, could further stall the process.
“This will all take time,” Kim said. “So now, the ball is in the National Assembly’s court.”
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