The first possible casualty of Friday’s shock vote to impeach South Korean President Park Geun-hye emerged Saturday as Japan’s top government spokesman hinted that a trilateral summit with Seoul and Beijing was unlikely to be held this year.
“The situation is becoming extremely tough for holding the summit within the year,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted by Kyodo News as saying on Saturday.
The summit, which Tokyo had planned to host sometime around Dec. 19, was to bring together Park and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on their first trips to Japan.
The summit was expected to provide South Korea and Japan a chance to discuss controversial issues with China, including North Korea’s nuclear arms program and the planned deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea.
The vote in South Korea’s legislature, however, has apparently put Tokyo on the back foot, despite its hopes of holding the talks before the year-end.
“It appears Tokyo is waiting until the South Korean political turmoil settles and there is more clarity about which administration it would need to work with going forward because the date of the snap elections has not yet been decided,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based analyst at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Tokyo could be in for a long wait.
The vote froze Park’s executive powers and left the country in the hands of Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. He will serve as a caretaker leader until the Constitutional Court rules on whether Park must permanently step down, a case that could drag on for as long as six months. If she is removed, an election must be called within 60 days to replace her.
The impeachment vote comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, where Pyongyang has this year conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile launches — including two that fell into waters close to Japan.
But despite the ominous signals, Tokyo might be able to relax — at least for the moment.
Pyongyang appears to be relishing the political chaos roiling Seoul and unwilling to provoke it, Tokyo or Washington before feeling out the incoming administration of new U.S. leader Donald Trump.
Trump has said he is willing to talk to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but has also stoked concerns in Seoul over his threats to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan.
“Hypothetically, simultaneous political uncertainty in South Korea and the U.S. gives North Korea an opportunity to exploit, but Pyongyang has not yet taken action, perhaps because provoking now might strengthen the South Korean conservative foothold,” Georgetown’s Kim said. “But we will have to see how it behaves around Trump’s inauguration, whether it will choose to test the new U.S. administration early or wait and see what kinds of policies are devised.”
Tetsuo Kotani, a senior research fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, agreed, noting that North Korea “does not have to provoke the international community at this moment as things are moving in the direction which favors it.” This, Kotani added, includes a South Korean government likely to be led by progressive parties that may look to cancel the THAAD deployment — a move that would be welcomed by Beijing, which says that the system poses a threat to its national security.