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After weeks of uncertainty about what’s become known as the “Choi-gate” scandal and four Saturdays of protest in a row demanding her resignation, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye finally came forward on Tuesday and offered to step down as commander in chief.
Park’s passing the buck to the National Assembly to determine her fate comes amid an increasing push from opposition parties to impeach her, but was also conditional, offering no clear indication of exactly when or how she might leave office.
South Korea’s current state of affairs has made it an easy target for North Korea, which has closely monitored the conflict via South Korean social media posts, and published spreads of the weekly anti-Park demonstrations that numbered up to 2 million. But how will North Korea respond to this event? NK News reached out to experts around the world with three pressing questions.
The following North Korea specialists responded on time for our Tuesday deadline:
1. If there’s a snap election in South Korea, what would be North Korea’s desired outcome and what steps can it take to support that?
Aidan Foster-Carter: The Machiavellian answer: North Korea prefers Saenuri, as this means they can snarl rather than have to think.
But I reckon they’d rather have the liberals.
Especially if it’s Moon Jae-in, as it could may well be. In which case their wisest course is to keep quiet, since any hint of Pyongyang’s blessing is of course very bad news for Moon or whoever (as we’ve seen in the past).
The ROK Right will go in for the usual red-baiting, portraying the left as soft on tyranny.
Alison Evans: After President Park Geun-hye leaves office there will be 60 days within which to organize and hold an early election (it is currently planned for December 2017). However, this will only happen if Park resigns, or if an impeachment motion passes in the National Assembly and is subsequently approved by the Constitutional Court. The court has 180 days to deliberate, and can only rule on the allegations included in the motion, not any new information that comes to light after the motion passes.
The opposition parties in South Korea are likely to submit an impeachment motion to a vote in the National Assembly by 9 December, the last day of this year’s normal session. North Korea is already benefiting from the ongoing uncertainty and political instability, because it does not reflect well on South Korea’s political system and society. North Korea’s leadership likely wants South Korea’s next president to be less hard-line than Park, i.e. more willing to talk and use “soft” measures like aid.
Andray Abrahamian: I’m sure they’d want Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party to win since in the last election he quite overtly portrayed himself as a pro-Sunshine policy candidate.
I’m not sure they’d have to do anything: just keeping quiet and letting it play out is probably their best bet.
Andrew Salmon: A snap election is a big “if.” Park has hurled the nation’s political leadership – normally balanced between the Executive and the House – exclusively to the House.
The House has to decide on (1) What do to with Park? (2) Who would be interim leader if they ditch her? (3) When to call a presidential election?
Parliament does not have a good track record on reaching consensus, so we could face decontrol; at least if impeachment had gone ahead, there would have been a clear road map to follow. If I were North Korea, I would be rubbing my hands with glee at the likelihood of a rudderless ship of state adrift with no timetable to bring it back on course.
Cha Du-hyeogn: If there is a snap election, as some South Koreans presume, then Pyongyang’s primary goal will be electing a Seoul government that is more conciliatory to them than Park’s administration.
Chang Yong-seok: North Korea wants regime change, but it may aggressively ratchet up its rhetoric to support [the opposition parties].
The North will wage a propaganda war in cyberspace, but not cyber warfare.
And the country may intervene in the upcoming election by strengthening criticism of the ruling [Saenuri] party.
But their attempts are unhelpful: South Korean people have a very negative perception of the North’s interference in domestic affairs.
Choi Jong-kun: I’m not sure: North Korea won’t ultimately support a specific candidate, but they want a liberal candidate to be elected in the sense that they prefer the regime who might hold South – North talks.
But the North can change their position depending on a candidate’s policy toward the North [during the presidential campaign].
We can’t easily say the North will be happy with the victory of the Minjoo Party and be unhappy with the victory of the Saenuri Party, and I don’t believe the North will play a leading role [in intervening] in the South’s election.
The North just responded to Trump’s invitation to have a hamburger [with Kim Jong Un], for instance.
Choi Young-il: North Korea will “watch and enjoy” how the South Korean political tide will turn. However, depending on the result, the Pyongyang government might try to agitate the South by writing editorials in state-run media or using spy agents to write commentaries on South Korean internet news, the usual activity Pyongyang is suspected of doing to affect the South Korean politics.
But their activities, in the most generous terms, will be only limited to the ones I have explained above. Instead of carrying out their preemptive plans or aggressive involvement in the South, they will remain “flexible” and will calculate the number of cases after each of the South Korean events.
Chris Green: That is hard to say.
First of all, North Korea is not by definition concerned with who is in power in Seoul. The “North Wind,” or Pukp’ung, has been a prior assumption of people covering South Korean electoral politics since the 15th National Assembly elections in 1996. It is the belief that North Korea will undoubtedly try to influence South Korean politics at the time of an election. But that doesn’t always happen; North Korea doesn’t necessarily have a “desired outcome.” As Ryoo Kihl-jae, a former Minister of Unification said back in 2002, “The nature of the South Korean government and ruling regime is not an important factor determining North Korea’s policy towards the South.”
Moreover, the idea that the Kim dictatorship would prefer a return to the style of government of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun is not borne out by history. While it is true that in 1997 the North Korean government did seem to have cared quite deeply about who won or lost the presidential election, what is forgotten is that the person to whom they were ardently opposed was Kim Dae-jung. This time around, whenever the next election takes place, we will first have to wait and see who the candidates are before making a judgment.
Jaesung Ryu: It is difficult to tell. And honestly, Pyongyang would be more interested in exploiting the incoming Trump presidency in the U.S.
The current scandal in South Korea has little to do with the government’s North Korea policy and therefore anything at this point, regardless of which party candidate becomes the next president, is speculative.
Perhaps an orthodox view in Pyongyang may seek destabilization in the South. While its usual rhetoric will be most likely ineffective, controlled provocations in the DMZ or the NLL may increase the sense of threat perception in South Korea.
Jeong Kuk-jin: Unlike under Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un has been decreasing South Korea’s importance on matters of North Korean foreign relations.
So, from Kim Jong Un’s point of view, he will favor the South Korean government that maintains the status-quo in inter-Korean relations.
The result might differentiate who might be the next South Korean presidential candidate, but just like the previous South Korean election, the North will most likely provoke the South regardless.
John Lee: North Korea prefers the progressive camps, especially candidate Moon Jae-in, because they have worked with him during the Roh administration, because of their support for engagement.
The best thing they can do is not say anything; they have little influence over the South Korean people and the South Korean people will vote for whoever they wish.
Kim Dong-yup: In my opinion, the North won’t support a candidate because they know that a supportive comment on a candidate from the DPRK leads to the defeat of the candidate.
The North will rather than send a negative message tailored toward the [ruling] Saenuri Party.
But North Korea’s message means nothing, given that the North doesn’t broadcast in the South and South Koreans don’t read North Korean newspapers and are prohibited from accessing North Korean websites.
2. What would be the impact of a left-leaning President emerging victorious coinciding with a hard-line Trump administration?
Aidan Foster-Carter: I still see Trump as a loose cannon; he might yet talk with Kim Jong Un. But sure, some appointments are very hardline.
If he goes that route, expect the mismatch/tensions we saw earlier, esp. when the end of Kim Dae-jung’s government overlapped with the start of Dubya’s.
Or indeed Bush and Roh Moo-hyun.
Alison Evans: It is not yet clear what President-elect Trump’s (and his administration’s) foreign policies will be after he comes to office on 20 January 2017. Nonetheless, I think uncertainty around U.S. security guarantees in the Asia-Pacific region will encourage its allies, including Japan and South Korea, to develop their own capabilities, and ability to cooperate, faster.
For example, just last week Japan and South Korea signed a military intelligence-sharing agreement to be able to exchange information that they formally shared though the U.S. With regards to North Korea, particularly over the past 25 years, the U.S. and South Korea have often been a counter-weight to one another, facilitating measured responses to North Korea’s various “provocations”. This is likely to continue through 2017 and beyond.
Andray Abrahamian: There’s just too many unknowns with the Trump presidency right now to make predictions.
Broadly, a repeat of the Kim Dae-jun/Bush relationship is possible to imagine, but who knows?
During that period, we had a South Korea looking to engage as much as possible and create links with North Korea with a much more ambivalent White House that thought Sunshine was naive, leading to lack of coordination.
This is possible again, though so are many other possibilities – there are too many unknowns right now.
Andrew Salmon: If a left-leaning administration took power – which seems likely, given that (1) we have had two consecutive right wing administrations; (2) Park, a right winger, is colossally despised; and (3) Saenuri have no clear candidate – in Seoul, I think we would face a wider policy chasm than we saw between Kim Dae-jung and George Bush.
Today, the risks are far higher. Trump is talking about pivoting away from alliances, so if we had an outbreak of anti-Americanism, like in 2002, the Yankees might indeed go home. Moreover, the North Koreans are now far further down the nuclear and strategic missile track than during Bush-Kim. If a Trump administration decides on a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, will Seoul be in a position to dissuade Washington?
Cha Du-hyeogn: The major variable that will decide the North’s direction is its technical readiness to conduct the next provocation.
If the North is already prepared to perform the next missile launch or nuclear test, then it would either do it before the Trump administration’s inauguration. Or it may not do it at all if South Korea at that time is preparing to elect the next president.
The Pyongyang government knows very well that their provocations will impact the South Korean election, and they will not do anything that will consequently help the South Korean conservative party, which will most likely be more hard-line towards the North.
Choi Jong-kun: An adjustment period is necessary.
If a progressive government takes power in South Korea, Donald Trump’s administration and the South will show strong conflicting views given that the South doesn’t have experience and knowledge in Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea.
Choi Young-il: Should the South Korean opposition win the next election, the North will be highly interested in how THAAD deployment will turn out.
But by that time, after January, the Trump inauguration will take place, and all of Pyongyang’s attention will be more on how the Trump’s Asian policies will affect the Pyongyang government.
If the opposition party wins, most likely, it may be like the era of Roh Moo-hyun – George W Bush again. While the ROK-U.S. alliance will last, there might be slight frictions between the two on the matter of economic cooperation, as they did in the past.
Chang Yong-seok: South Korea is likely to face a tougher situation in the era of Donald Trump compared to the time [when George Bush and Kim Dae-jung took power at the same time].
However, the U.S. has no apparent trigger to resolve the issues on the Korean Peninsula unless it threatens the U.S. [national security]. In this sense, it’s significant for a South Korean [liberal government] to have the ability to convince the U.S. and take the initiative in leading neighboring countries.
And it will be hard to mediate policy on the Korean peninsula with Trump’s administration and to implement a forward-looking policy toward the North under difficult circumstance like [the UN] sanctions against the North.
Chris Green: In principle, it could result in conflict between Washington and Seoul.
If it did, that would be beneficial to North Korea to some degree, but the distance between rhetoric and reality in Washington is still too wide for anyone to be sure what will emerge there.
Besides, it is more beneficial to Pyongyang that the distance between the governments of Russia, China, Japan and the United States remains comfortably wide. North Korea can exploit the space in between.
Jaesung Ryu: Notwithstanding the fact that we cannot be certain of what the Trump administration’s East Asia policy will look like at this point, the bilateral relationship between South Korea and the U.S. will survive regardless of the new South Korean president’s political inclinations.
This will also offer North Korea more strategic space unless both countries work to increase policy coordination throughout the region including not only Japan but also China and Russia.
Jeong Kuk-jin: South Korea has already experienced similar ROK-U.S. relations from 2001 to 2007, during the time when Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and George W Bush were in power. Seoul and Washington stand on the same broad principle called the “ROK-U.S. alliance” which has lasted more than 60 years.
The two will be pressured to face the North Korean nuclear threat together, so I do not believe that the ROK-U.S. relations will face any serious friction.
John Lee: Best case scenario: A left-leaning South Korean president will help to tone down the Trump administration’s hardline policies.
Worst case scenario: The Trump administration takes a go-it-alone approach and sidelines Seoul.
Kim Dong-yup: South Korean and U.S. governments have crossed path several times in the last few decades. When the U.S. Democratic President (Barack Obama) took power, the conservative Presidents (Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye) took office in the South. On the contrary, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung came to power in the South, the U.S. Republican Party (George Bush) ruled. I have no concern at this point.
The U.S. Republican Party takes hardline policy [toward the North], but Donald Trump is unpredictable. If a candidate from the opposition Minjoo Party is elected, the South will have a broad spectrum of policy options toward the North rather than undergo a conflict.
In this respect, the possibility of change in the U.S. – South Korea alliance is open. But it’s imperative for the South to play an [appropriate] role next year in 2017 when Trump takes office. I believe the first year of Trump is a crucial moment, and we may miss the timing if either conservative or liberal regime comes to power after 2017. In this sense, it’s hard to predict the changes [of the policy on the Korean Peninsula].
3. Public protests may well have lead to the ouster of a South Korean President: How will North Korea present this fact internally?
Alison Evans: Park is unlikely to resign unless the mass protests continue for a couple months into 2017; while President she is immune to criminal prosecution (except charges of insurrection and treason).
If she is impeached or steps down, North Korea is likely to present this as a victory for its system and ways of life: a conservative South Korean president who made relations on the peninsula worse has been forced to concede to the will of the people, and South Korea is such a failed state that hundreds of thousands of people come out on the streets to demonstrate against its morally corrupt government.
Andray Abrahamian: It’s perfect for them, especially since they can point to the protests and the ouster in whatever form and say the Korean people have been betrayed by this individual, her family, the system. Only single-hearted unity under strong leadership can defend the interests of the Korean people. On specific policy actions and pronouncements they had (Dresden and Kaesong, for example) they will say this venal leader was under the influence of a mad women. They’ve said plenty of horrible stuff already, of course. This adds ammunition.
It’s worth noting it’s also one more great data point in 2016 for China’s domestic PR, too: see, they can say, liberal democracy is untrustworthy and dangerous.
Andrew Salmon: The overthrow of a president in South Korea is a double-edged sword for North Korea.
One: If publicized, could it give the average North Korean the wrong ideas: “if in Seoul – why not Pyongyang?”
Two: Frankly, I don’t think North Korea can take much advantage beyond rhetoric: South Koreans may hate Park, but they don’t love Kim and there is no sign of a pro-North Korean faction fermenting revolution. (Though South Korean conservatives may see this threat.
) There is one stabilizing influence at play here: the South Korean military has long outgrown coups, and they have been – since Kim Kwan-jin took over as Defense Minister in 2010, and is now Park’s National Security Advisor – very keen to take on the North with serious retaliation if they repeat a Cheonan or Yeongpyong.
So I think the ROK armed forces are solid, which means national security is assured – regardless of political turmoil in Seoul. The question, of course, will be: Who is in charge of military affairs? I hope and assume the National Assembly will keep Kim and the current Defence Minister in place. This is no time to go wobbly – or to look wobbly.
Cha Du-hyeogn: North Korean media will not approach this from the “democratic point of view.” The North, from what I see, can approach this from any angle they want. For example, the North can explain that the South Korean former president has been acting like “a feudal lord” and was ousted by her people.
It can also tell its population that Park has been colliding with the South Korean Chaebols, the capitalists, and was ousted. The room for North Korean interpretation is wide open, and as I said, instead of seeing this from our point of view, they can interpret this event as the result of Park’s anti-national and anti-public activities.
Chang Yong-seok: I expect that the North will report that the South deposed a dictator given that they now use the expression “the dictator’s last days.” Of course, the North doesn’t think that they have a dictatorial government and even talk about the sovereignty of the nation.
But the concept of the sovereignty is different in the South and the North, and the North uses terminology in their own way. Therefore, the North will report the issue as it is. However, the issue is that I have to wait and see how North Korean middle and elite classes, who have a better understanding of the external world, take on this problem.
Choi Jong-kun: It’s hard to predict, but I think the North may downplay candle vigils in the South, saying President Park Geun-hye should step down due to her corruption.
And the North might say the South’s National Assembly impeached her.
Choi Young-il: Superficially, the North will welcome it as the “South Koreans’ victory” over corrupted power. However, Kim Jong Un, in fear of how a South Korean democratic movement may impact North Koreans, will try to enhance ideological education and monitoring system as well.
While Pyongyang will do its best to align the result of the South’s bloodless revolution with the North’s socio-political system, there are high chances that this event might come as the “awakening” event to some of North Koreans.
Chris Green: There are multiple constituencies to consider. To the people watching television news and reading page five of Rodong Sinmun, it will be portrayed as the collapse of a corrupt puppet government.
To the party interior, meanwhile, it will be treated as evidence that the last thing North Korea, led by the Workers’ Party and its leader, Kim Jong-un, should do is let its guard down either at home or abroad. Instability is the enemy. Rodong Sinmun writers are already warning of a South Korean government that will “not hesitate” to deal with the crisis by manufacturing a communist plot and/or “provoking” the North somehow, so we can see how that would play out with the domestic security services.
Jaesung Ryu: Domestic concerns will require Pyongyang to depict the incident as a victory of the “revolutionary will” of the South Korean people, while keeping in mind that the subsequent transition, which will be undoubtedly democratic, will not support its original revolutionary expectations.
In the end, Pyongyang will use the case to justify the legitimacy of the Kim family.
Jeong Kuk-jin: The Pyongyang government will have to calculate the pros and cons of alerting this news to the domestic readers.
First, it will be acceptable for the North to use this news to say that the South Korean people have heavily criticized the current government. It might explain that Park has stepped down after facing the overall oppositions from the countries.
However, it will not be necessary for the Pyongyang government to explain the concept of a national leader being ousted directly by the power of the people.
John Lee: North Korean newspapers have already publicized the protests against Park without overtly showing the popular movement behind it.
They will likely publicize her removal, gloat about it, and then move on quickly.
Kim Dong-yup: This is a double-sided sword for North Korea. The North wants to highlight the corruption of President and candlelight rallies, but if they highlight the regime change caused by democratic protests, it will deliver a blow to themselves.
I think they won’t exaggerate the issue.
The North will approach the matter in a way to degrade the South Korean government and raise the legitimacy of North Korean leadership as long as it won’t negatively impact their regime stability.
Additional reporting: J.H. Ahn, Dagyum Ji, Chad O’Carroll, Christina Lee