When Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea five years ago, few would have predicted that his hold on power would be more stable than that of his South Korean counterpart. Yet today, Kim remains comfortably in control, whereas South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached and suspended from office by her country’s parliament on corruption charges.
The regional imbalance created by these dynamics should concern the next U.S. administration. Park’s impeachment has made South Korea more vulnerable to the growing threat from North Korea—and in that sense, the United States has become more vulnerable, too. As Pyongyang’s belligerence increases and South Korea’s ability to respond remains hampered by domestic political problems, it will fall to the next U.S. president to counter Kim’s aggression and to pressure him to curtail repression at home.
In the past four years alone, North Korea has conducted three nuclear and three long-range missile tests. In the face of such boldness, Park has stood firm. Unlike her predecessors, she has strengthened South Korea’s sanctions against the Kim regime in response to each of its provocations. In February 2016, after one such missile test, her government even shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a source of cash for Pyongyang’s weapons program and the last remnant of inter-Korean economic cooperation.
Park’s supporters fear that the vacuum brought about by her downfall will embolden Pyongyang while empowering left-leaning domestic parties that favor a softer line against Kim’s regime. They are right to worry. In the coming year, Kim may test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland, further raising the threat his country poses to the world. If a candidate from one of South Korea’s opposition parties becomes the country’s next president after the elections later this year, it would be good news for Kim, since every opposition contender favors cooperating with rather than coercing North Korea, despite Moon Jae-in, the frontrunner in the race to be the next president, has made no secret of his sanguine views on North Korea policy.
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