SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - As the South Korean presidency teeters on the brink of collapse thanks to a growing influence-peddling scandal, North Korea has so far refrained from taking any significant provocative actions.
There is a report this week from the Fox Business Network, citing unnamed U.S. officials, that the North is preparing to launch an intermediate range ballistic missile this week.
But this would not be surprising news because Pyongyang has conducted 24 missile tests this year in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and despite the imposition of new international sanctions in March.
In the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. and China are negotiating another round of sanctions to again increase economic pressure on the leadership in Pyongyang to engage in talks to halt its nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
Pyongyang is making a political calculation with its missile tests to gain a better bargaining position with the next U.S. president, says analyst Bong Young-shik with the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies.
At the same time, Kim Jong Un does not want to shift focus away from the political crisis that has weakened the power, influence and credibility of South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“There’s a personal bad blood between the two leaders. So I don’t think Kim Jong Un will make things any easier for President Park Geun-hye,” Bong said.
The North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun said Monday, “The case is a clear proof of the true nature of the Park Geun-hye regime, the most deformed, abnormal and stupid in contemporary society.”
Seoul responded by urging the North to refrain from meddling in the South’s domestic affairs.
Apart from pointed and harsh criticisms, Bong does not expect Pyongyang to instigate any direct border skirmishes that would give Park an opportunity to act as a strong military leader to refurbish her tarnished reputation.
Calls for the South Korean president to resign or be impeached continued in Seoul Thursday as prosecutors came a step closer to directly linking Park to a multimillion dollar embezzlement scheme, allegedly organized by a long time friend.
Her former senior adviser An Chong-bum, who recently resigned, has been arrested. He is being investigated on allegations that he and other high level officials in the Blue House, perhaps even the president herself, were complicit in efforts by Park’s friend Choi Soon-sil to coerce large corporations to donate more than $68 million for two sports foundations and to embezzle the funds for personal gain.
Samsung Electronics reportedly transferred more than $3 million directly to a German sports company established by Choi and her daughter, Chung Yoo-ra.
Choi, who is not a government official, has reportedly exerted undo influence over Park and exploited her personal relationship with the president to exercise control over policy and staff.
Her lawyer says she is cooperating with the prosecution but is innocent of the charges.
Choi was at the Seoul Central District Court on Thursday at a hearing to decide whether to issue a warrant for her arrest. She is expected to be charged with abuse of power and attempted fraud as early as Friday.
Investigating the president
Park maintains she was not aware of any influence peddling or illegal acts being committed by those around her.
She has attempted to reshuffle her top leadership to appease her critics, including naming Kim Byong-joon as the new prime minister. Kim is a professor at Kookmin University who was affiliated with a major opposition party in the past.
In South Korea, the prime minister is the next in line to assume the presidency if the elected leader resigns or dies in office.
However the opposition parties that hold a majority in the National Assembly are refusing to even hold a hearing to approve his appointment, saying they want to be involved in the selection process.
The prime minister nominee Thursday concurred with some opposition lawmakers that it is legally possible to investigate a president for crimes committed in office.
“My position is an investigation is possible. But since (she) is the head of state, its process and method requires circumspection,” said Kim said during a press conference in Seoul.
No sitting South Korean president has been subject to an investigation by prosecutors.
While it will be difficult to force Park from office before her single five-year term ends in 2018, she has become increasingly isolated and powerless as more details regarding this scandal emerge. Her approval rating is now in the single digits.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report from Seoul.