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How will the impeachment of Park Geun Hye affect North Korea?

Choi Song Min  |  2017-03-16 18:43
The Constitutional Court of Korea removed President Park Geun Hye from office on March 10, marking the first time in history that an incumbent president has been ousted by impeachment. This author interviewed several North Korean defectors to listen to their opinions of the event.

1. The president was impeached for the first time in the constitutional history of South Korea. How did you personally feel about the situation, and how are other North Korean defectors responding to the news?

I was shocked to see the president of a country being impeached by her own people and by the constitutional court. I never imagined that such an incident could be possible when I was living in North Korea, where the Suryongs (Supreme Leader) system has been maintained for over 50 years.

Other defectors are feeling the same way. Many worry that the situation will be exploited by the North Korean regime. Instability here has many advantages for the North Korean leadership.

2. In that sense, what would North Korean residents think, seeing as they have been living under a hereditary dictatorship for three generations?

I think they will have similar thoughts. The North Korean people have been brainwashed into worshipping the leader unconditionally without raising questions. However, the current incident is likely to convince some of them that leaders can, in fact, be held accountable to the people.

3. The former president strongly emphasized the importance of reunification, often telling the North Korean people that they are always welcome to come over to the Land of Freedom. Compared to past presidents, she has made relatively stronger efforts toward unification and the improvement of human rights in North Korea. How did the North Korean people perceive Park?

First of all, the North Koreans had a perception that the former President Park Chung Hee, her father, was a visionary who propelled South Korea into economic development. Therefore, they have been thinking that Park Geun Hye, who has personally visited North Korea, was a reliable, cool-headed leader. She is regarded by many North Korean residents as having a dogged resolve, despite being a woman, in light of her decision to deploy THAAD and shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Therefore, North Koreans were extremely interested in news about the Choi Soon Sil incident in the state-run publication Rodong Sinmun. Despite attempts by the propaganda apparatus to first sanitize the information, people have still understood that even the president can be impeached under the rule of law. It is possible that they may use South Korea as a yardstick in a different way when judging their own leadership.

4. Until the Constitutional Court decided to dismiss Park, tens of thousands, and by some estimates over a million citizens held candlelight marches in the streets for successive months, urging Park to resign. The Rodong Sinmun has been reporting on this with photos. How did the North Korean people react to the news?

The North Korean authorities must have thought that the Choi Soon Sil scandal was a good opportunity to accuse South Korea of being a rotten cesspool. However, the regime refrained from reporting specific details, fearing that the news of massive candlelight rallies filling Seoul Square may give ideas to the North Korean people and have negative implications for regime security.

In fact, North Koreans find out a lot about South Korean society through the articles and the few photos printed in the Rodong Sinmun. They often compare their lives with that of the South Koreans through the features and slogans reported in the paper because the authorities have been continuously emphasizing the difference between capitalism and socialism. The residents get subtle hints about the reality of North Korea, which is vulnerable both in economic and political terms. In particular, because there have been many protest signs belittling Park during the candlelight rallies, North Koreans have learned the true meaning of freedom of expression in South Korea.

5. Could the candlelight vigils and the impeachment of the president help North Koreans to develop an awareness of democracy?

I think the event will definitely have a significant impact on the perceptions of the North Korean people. They must have realized that even ordinary citizens can work together to challenge the authorities by watching the continuing peaceful demonstrations the South Koreans have held to remove the president.

In particular, it has shown them the idea that the people and the law are above the president. It must have convinced them that even a dictatorial regime cannot hold the people hostage forever.

6. What would the North Korean authorities, including Kim Jong Un, be thinking about the events in the South?

It is likely that Kim Jong Un and other high-ranking officials were shocked by the news. Kim Jong Un expressed remorse during his New Year's Address earlier this year. This could be interpreted as evidence that he is beginning to fear the opinions of the North Korean people after learning of the mass protests in South Korea. I would argue this to be, at least in part, the reason behind his recent political act of purging Kim Won Hong (former Minister of State Security), the head of the organization that symbolizes the power of the regime.

Witnessing the impeachment in South Korea, Kim Jong Un is more likely to pay attention to the North Korean people.

7. Kim Jong Un must be feeling pleased by the trouble in South Korea yet worried that the North Koreans may be interested in a similar destiny. What will the regime tell the people?

Kim Jong Un will be more worried than pleased by the news, especially because he knows that many North Koreans have followed the whole process. The regime was eagerly reporting the news through state media, so it was impossible for them to stop short of announcing the impeachment.  

It remains to be seen how the authorities will portray Park's charges going forward, but it is highly likely that the regime will announce that Park angered the citizens due to her inadequate response to the Sewol ferry disaster, and her decisions to close down the Kaesong Industrial Complex and deploy THAAD.

8. How do you think these events relate to North Korea and Kim Jong Un?

The North Korean people do not yet know the full details of the crimes committed by the Kim family, because the authorities have been trying to block all external information and drown it out with propaganda. If the North Koreans learn the full extent of historical distortions and human rights violations perpetrated by the Kim family, the regime will soon collapse.

9. Finally, what overall implications will the impeachment of Park have for North Korea?

To me, it seems that it will reinforce the idea to Kim Jong Un and his regime cronies that liberal democracy, reform and opening means destruction. On the other hand, for many North Koreans, the displays of freedom of expression and the press are sure to linger, eventually manifesting as a yearning for freedom.

*Translated by Yejie Kim
*Edited by Lee Farrand

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