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North Korea looks to capitalize on South's political crisis

A crippling corruption scandal embroiling the presidency in South Korea has its northern neighbor rejoicing as Pyongyang looks to exploit the crisis to its favor.

Since its inception in 1948, the North's primary objective has been a unified Korean Peninsula under a communist party-led state. It regularly launches aggressive criticism of various governments in Seoul to demonstrate its ideological superiority.

Now, North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un can just sit back and watch as his counterpart President Park Geun-hye looks set to leave office under popular pressure. South Koreans have protested against Park for five straight weeks over her alleged involvement in an influence-peddling case, adding to spiking frustration with the nation's history of political corruption.

"For North Korea's leadership, the political instability [in South Korea] is excellent evidence for why its system and society are better than South Korea's, supporting its position that North Korea is the one true, legitimate Korea," Alison Evans, deputy head and senior Asia-Pacific analyst at IHS Markit, explained.

Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung (L) and Kim Jong-Il (R) in Pyongyang on December 1, 2016.
ED JONES / AFP / Getty Images
Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung (L) and Kim Jong-Il (R) in Pyongyang on December 1, 2016.

The two Koreas share language and family ties, but remain bitter enemies at the political level, having fought a three-year war to a stalemate in 1953. But they are currently experiencing a rare moment of unity in their common resentment towards Park.

Media outlets in both countries have lashed out against the head of state, with op-eds routinely referring to Park as a traitor and calling for her prosecution. Of course, North Korean media is entirely state-run, unlike the South.

"North Korean media has widely reported on the turmoil in South Korean politics to show how, unlike Kim Jong Un's government, South Korea's government does not listen to its people, particularly the workers' unions," Evans continued.

Kim's next course of action

Kim is likely devising ways to exploit South Korea's political weakness as an opportunity to cause further instability, but that could backfire on the 32-year-old leader.

"Kim Jong Un's best near-term course of action may indeed be the one that is most difficult for him to embrace: sit tight and be quiet," Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, explained in a Wednesday note.

Should he take advantage of South Korean political paralysis through military aggression, a response "innate to North Korean thinking," Washington will likely get involved and retaliate, Snyder added.

So far this year, Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests in addition to several rocket and missile launches to display its military prowess. On Wednesday, the United Nations slapped fresh sanctions on the rogue nation, including reducing shipments of coal—Pyongyang's biggest export—by 60 percent.

Evans at IHS Markit agreed that Kim should refrain from recent weapons activity and essentially let Park's scandal, dubbed Choi-gate, do his bidding.

"It is conceivable that North Korea does not feel the need to, for example, fire artillery over the Northern Limit Line [a maritime border separating the two nations] or test-launch missiles because Choi-gate provides enough bad press for South Korea," she said.

What's next for Park

On Friday, South Korean opposition parties said they will propose an impeachment motion against Park in parliament, with the actual vote slated for Dec. 9, according to Reuters. While the opposition has a majority in parliament, they still need support from at least 28 lawmakers in Park's ruling Saenuri party.

Park said on Tuesday that she was willing to resign early, but left it to parliament to decide the specifics-a move that critics called a stalling tactic to avoid arrest and impeachment. In Asia's fourth-largest economy, Presidents can't be charged with crimes except insurrection or treason.

Park's strategy may be successful.

The Korea Times reported on Thursday that Saenuri officials "unanimously" agreed to push for Park's resignation by April. That would overthrow an impeachment motion and most importantly, buy the party enough time to prepare a suitable candidate for the next presidential election, which need to be held 60 days following a president's resignation.

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