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Asia

North Korea revels in the South's political crisis

A developing political scandal in South Korea has given the North new reason to claim that the South is corrupt and that Pyongyang should be the "legitimate" ruler of the peninsula. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.

Südkorea Choi Soon-sil (Getty Images/AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

Protesters wear masks of President Park (R) and her aide Choi Soon-sil during a recent protest in Seoul.

Kim Jong-Un has been under constant pressure since he assumed leadership of the world's sole communist dynasty nearly five years ago. Each time the North Korean dictator has gone ahead with an underground nuclear test, the rest of the world has clamored for him to halt and simultaneously tightened sanctions. There have been three nuclear tests under his leadership to date, the most recent on September 9. Launches of rockets to put satellites into orbit have provoked a similar reaction, as have test-firings of ballistic missiles.

Criticism of Kim's actions have been strongest from Seoul and the Blue House, the official residence of South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Indeed, the North Korean leader must be thoroughly enjoying the crisis, which has been bubbling beneath the surface in Seoul for weeks and has finally erupted.

Resignation demands

In the wake of a scandal involving a government aide, Park's public support rate has collapsed to just nine percent and calls for her to resign, even from long-term allies, are growing louder. On Friday, prosecutors announced that they are expanding their investigation into Choi Soon-sil, a close friend of Park, who is under arrest on suspicion of benefiting financially from her links to the president.

More shocking have been the allegations that Choi influenced state policy, rewrote the president's speeches and had access to secret documents on security and diplomatic issues, including those involving North Korea. Analysts say the spotlight - and the pressure - have suddenly been refocused from Pyongyang to Seoul.

"This is the weakest politically that South Korea has been since it became a democracy in 1987 and the North is clearly trying to take advantage of that," Stephen Nagy, an associate professor of politics at Tokyo's International Christian University told DW.

"And it has, in some ways, played very neatly into Kim's hands," he said. "This fits with the North's narrative that its system should be the one that oversees the peninsula because the government regime in Seoul is divided, unstable and corrupt."

Furthermore, the scandal permits the North to claim that South Korea is "illegitimate" and repeat the insistence that the South only exists because it has been propped up by the United States since the Japanese occupying forces departed at the end of World War Two.

"They are saying that Park's actions have demonstrated that the North Korean regime is the only legitimate form of government for a reunited Korean nation - a divide-and-conquer strategy," Nagy added.

Attacks on the leadership

North Korean state-run media is missing no opportunity to criticize the South Korean leadership, with editorials by the Korea Central News Agency claiming Park is "making a mockery of the South Korean people through illegal actions and trickery" that have turned the nation into "a cesspool of irregularities and corruption."

Nordkorea Kim Jong Un (picture-alliance/dpa/J.Press/M. Matsutani)

N. Korean state-run media is missing no opportunity to criticize the South Korean leadership

Elsewhere, she has been described as a "rabid dog," a "witch" and a "prostitute clinging to the trousers of her American master."

The North Korean Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday claimed that Park's government is the "most deformed, abnormal and stupid in contemporary history."

"The situation in the South is not going to affect direct bilateral diplomacy or discussions because those ties have been dead for a long time and there is no likelihood of them being resurrected any time soon," said  Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a NGO.

"It is impossible to know how the North is going to react going forward, and we must also bear in mind that the US holds its elections next week," said Park, who has previously worked for the South Korean government and the United Nations.

"To my mind, there is little benefit to the North Koreans carrying out another missile launch or a nuclear test - but it would be no surprise at all for Pyongyang to welcome the new administration in the US with a bang of some sort," he added.

Stephen Nagy, however, is not so sure and he suggests that now would be a good time for the North to once again demonstrate progress in military technology. How this will happen remains to be seen. "Perhaps there will be another missile launch or a nuclear test - although it is not clear that they are ready to carry out another underground test," he said.

Cross-border meddling

The South Korean government, for its part, has made it clear that the North should refrain from meddling in the South's domestic issues.

North Korea failed ballistic missile launch (picture-alliance/dpa/Jeon Heon-Kyun)

North Korea conducted a failed missile launch in October

"North Korea should immediately stop its moves to meddle in South Korea's internal affairs," a spokesman for the Unification Ministry in Seoul told the Yonhap news agency at a press conference. "It would be desirable for Pyongyang to focus on improving the lives of is people."

Even before the scandal broke, Park was considered something of a lame duck leader, as she is entering the final year of her administration. It is possible that she will have to step down before her term is up and, sensing an opportunity to get in some early blows, North Korean state media have started to criticize Ban Ki-moon, the outgoing secretary general of the UN who is seen as a likely candidate for the South Korean presidency.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Thursday took Ban to task when he called for additional sanctions on the North after it refused to adhere to UN demands for halting the development of nuclear weapons.

The story described Ban as a "despicable lackey of the US" and claimed his remarks are a "cynical ploy to curry favor with the US and traitor Park Geun-hye through frantic moves to escalate the confrontation with the DPRK and thus realize his sinister political ambition."