Green: The impeachment vote has raised fears that North Korea will capitalize on the turmoil
However, South Korea appears to be in control of the situation
Editor’s Note: Christopher Green is a researcher at Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands and one of the senior editors of Sino-NK, a digital periodical dealing with Northeast Asian affairs. The opinions in this article belong to the author
The South Korean legislature voted to impeach President Park Geun-hye on Friday, a move that has raised fears of instability in East Asia.
The impeachment vote, which passed by an unexpectedly wide margin encompassing more than 60 members of the President’s own party, means that Park is locked out of the president’s office and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn takes over her official responsibilities.
However, the seemingly smooth transition has not eliminated fears that North Korea could try to capitalize on the lack of clear leadership in Seoul.
North Korean assertiveness on the military and political fronts this year only adds to the anxiety. In 2016, Pyongyang has so far conducted two nuclear tests in a single year for the first time, as well as launching an earth observation satellite, Kwangmyongsong-4, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
Meanwhile, the Seventh Korean Workers’ Party Congress, held in early May after a 36-year hiatus, argues for a stable political system emerging from years of transition to the rule of Kim Jong Un. For all its stage-managed improbability, politics in Pyongyang stand in stark contrast to what is taking place less than 200 km away in Seoul.
However, South Korea appears to be in control of the situation. Aware of the need to send clear signals – not only to North Korea but also to the wider world and international investors – government officials have set about calming sentiment.
In a pre-planned step, Defense Minister Han Min-goo convened a teleconference with military commanders at 5 p.m. Friday, just one hour after the result of the impeachment vote. In the meeting, Han urged vigilance against the risk that North Korea could try to make hay out of the situation, warning that “the more difficult the country is, the more important is the role of our military.”
The financial sector responded equally rapidly. Following a similar vote to impeach former President Roh Moo-hyun in 2004, the stock market in Seoul tumbled into a period of volatility. In the three days after the impeachment motion was tabled on March 9 that year, the country’s main KOSPI index shed 5.7%. This was followed by another 2.43% on the day that the motion passed.
The effect this time around has so far been minimal, with the KOSPI closing just 0.3% down. The Bank of Korea is hoping to remain in the same calm waters. Gov. Lee Ju-yeol met the impeachment vote by announcing a task force to monitor the economy for signs of unrest. Finance Minister Yoo Il-ho also convened a meeting of key officials to discuss possible policy responses.
Finally, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se moved to reassure the diplomatic community that it is business as usual. He dispatched a message to the country’s diplomatic missions worldwide to explain that foreign policy will not change, before meeting with key ambassadors including the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the European Union to issue the same message. Following the meeting, US Amb. Mark Lippert told reporters that the US-ROK alliance is and will stay strong, and vowed to keep working closely with the government of South Korea.
Of course, rhetoric can sometimes be overcome by the pace of events. However, there is good reason to believe that North Korea does not see any strategic benefit to be gained by acting aggressively. Pyongyang by no means prioritizes South Korea in its tactical calculus anyway, but it would be particularly unwise of Pyongyang to expend political capital in the month before the incoming Trump administration is sworn in.
Additionally, North Korea is busy. December is a time for key activities that make it a bad time for unplanned bursts of adventurism. Pending matters include closing out national accounts, holding internal commemoration events marking the death of former leader Kim Jong Il on December 17 and winter military training drills. The latter are officially supposed to take place in the period between December and the end of March, but much of the main action takes place in December.
Back in Seoul, the impeachment motion now sits before the Constitutional Court, which has 180 days to hand down a ruling on whether Park goes or stays. In 2004, it took just 63 days for the justices to reinstate Roh Moo-hyun, but the charges against Park are more serious and so the result is unlikely to come quite so soon.
However, the system can weather the storm. South Korea’s chaos isn’t automatically good news for North Korea.