SEOUL – If the latest round of sanctions against North Korea put leader Kim Jong Un in a bad mood, political upheavals in two of his biggest adversaries are giving him a reason to smile.
Official media on Sunday showed the young leader chuckling as commandos set ablaze a mock-up of South Korea’s presidential Blue House.
One newspaper on Tuesday called President Park Geun-hye — who was impeached last week — a traitor who should be drowned in the sea of candles raised by protesters.
The downfall of Park, who favored strong action against Kim’s regime, opens the door for opponents who advocate a softer approach toward the North.
On top of that, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has already picked a fight with China — North Korea’s biggest ally — diminishing the risk of a coordinated response if Kim continues a push to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to American shores.
“Kim has more cards to play now that South Korea is in turmoil,” said Kim Min-gyu, a former North Korean diplomat who teaches defense policy at South Korea’s Woosuk University. “It’s the kind of turmoil even his legion of spies couldn’t have created. And whether North Korea makes a provocation or reaches out for talks, it is more unpredictable.”
Pyongyang has ramped up propaganda broadcasts and may attempt a provocation ahead of Trump’s inauguration in January, South Korean Army officials said Monday as they briefed lawmakers visiting a front-line base near the border with the North.
U.S. nuclear envoy Joseph Yun told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday that he believed North Korea would carefully watch the political transitions both in Seoul and Washington. “It is also an opportunity for them to see what can be done for the ultimate goal of peaceful denuclearization,” he said. “But so far we have not seen any signs that they want to engage in any meaningful way.”
Park’s suspension from power over an influence-peddling scandal has put national security in the hands of a prime minister with little experience in dealing with Pyongyang. Hwang Kyo-ahn, a 59-year-old former justice minister, now has control over 630,000 troops while the Constitutional Court reviews the impeachment motion for as long as six months. An election would be held two months later if the court approves the motion and ousts Park as president.
While the machinery of the South’s military remains intact — and the U.S. still has 28,500 troops stationed in the country — the untested political leadership may be more reluctant to retaliate if Kim strikes, said Park Hwee-rhak, a former South Korean Army colonel who heads the Graduate School of Politics and Leadership at Seoul’s Kookmin University. As recently as 2010, North Korea’s army killed four people bombing an island in the South.
“It’s questionable whether South Korea’s military officials would be bold and quick enough to hit back at North Korea in the absence of a legitimate leader who isn’t afraid to take blame,” Park said.
Trump sent mixed signals regarding North Korea on the campaign trail. He alarmed many by threatening to withdraw U.S. troops from allies Japan and South Korea if they didn’t pay more. He dubbed Kim a “maniac,” though he also said he was willing to negotiate directly to convince him to end his nuclear ambitions.
“The Trump factor is a big variable in this equation,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based fellow for Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. “Because of so many unknowns and variables, it is ever more critical that there is no daylight between the allies or room for North Korea to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul.”
The United Nations Security Council last month announced a new round of sanctions to punish North Korea for its fifth nuclear detonation in September. This year alone, the North has conducted two nuclear tests and fired more than 20 missiles.
After the U.N.’s announcement, North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it would take “more powerful self-defense measures than before.” It didn’t elaborate.
The success of sanctions hinges on China, which accounts for most of North Korea’s trade, as well as food and energy supplies. Park used much of her single five-year term trying to develop a friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping and use it to squeeze North Korea harder, but ties soured over South Korea’s decision to deploy a U.S. missile defense system on its soil.
Trump’s spat with China over Taiwan makes it more difficult for Washington and Beijing to cooperate on North Korea. Just this week, China’s Global Times newspaper warned that Beijing could provide weapons to anti-U.S. forces if Trump reverses American policy on Taiwan.
In a further sign of disarray in the region, Japan announced on Tuesday that a summit with China and South Korea that had been planned to be held in Tokyo by the end of year had been postponed.
“Who would want to hold a summit with us now?” said Cha Du-hyeogn, who served as a security adviser for former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. “South Korea will face challenges in holding summits, not to mention fighting war.”
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