The South Korean Constitutional Court's decision Friday to uphold parliament's impeachment vote against President Park Geun-hye removes her from office and introduces fresh uncertainty at a time of rising regional tensions sparked by Seoul's rival North Korea missile and nuclear programs.
The removal of Park, 65, over corruption related to the country's big business conglomerates means South Korea must hold a presidential election within 60 days, with a bitterly divided population and highly fraught ties with North Korea and with the North's patron, China.
Her ouster capped a week that saw North Korea fire a barrage of four missiles into waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan -- action some analysts said were a practice attack on U.S. military bases in Japan, facilities that would play a key role in defending South Korea from any attack from the North.
At the same time, China deepened its war of words over Seoul's deployment of a U.S. antimissile defense system to counter the nuclear and missile threat from the North and intensified a boycott of South Korean goods and services.
South Korea's relations with China, which Park had done a lot to cultivate, have frayed over Seoul's decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antimissile system. Beijing says the THAAD system represents a threat to its security and is pressuring Seoul to scrap it.
Liberal politician Moon Jae-in appears to have a strong lead in the race to succeed Park. He has called for the missile defense system to be "reconsidered" and was photographed at a March 8 International Women's Day event with fist-pumping activists behind a banner calling for the impeachment of Park and the immediate cancellation of the THAAD deployment.
A prominent defector from North Korea told RFA's Korean Service in Seoul expressed concern that Park's successor could soften policies against Pyongyang.
“The Republic of Korea needs to know exactly what the North Korean regime is doing, whether it is progressive or conservative, and to judge exactly how to foster reasonable change in North Korea," said Kang Chol-hwan, president of the North Korea Strategy Center and former prisoner in the North's gulag-style prison camp system.
"Without good judgement, there is a serious problem of repeating the policies that save the regime of North Korea through a vast supply of food and cash," he said.
U.S.-based analysts, however, said that North Korea's threat was so obvious and so clearly increasing that a Seoul government of any stripe would have to act to meet its duty to protect South Koreans.
"The reality is that what we've seen from North Korea over the last year or so, in particularly most recently the missile test demonstrates very clearly that the threat is growing," James Przystup, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University outside Washington.
"I don't think they can move away from THAAD, frankly, and I think that their secret hope is that it gets installed very quickly so that it can be a legacy system for them," he told RFA, referring to a successor government.
Reuters news agency quoted the Pentagon as saying Friday that it would continue delivering THAAD components, as a matter separate from South Korea's domestic political crisis.
Other analysts suggested that the election period could see North Korea refrain from missile tests or other types of provocative actions to avoid overplaying its hand and helping conservatives.
"North Korea benefits from political weakness and uncertainty in South Korea," said James Schoff, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
He added, however, "if they are too aggressive with the South in terms of more missile tests and other types of provocations ... that would actually backfire."
Reported and translated by Kyung Ha Rhee and Sungwon Yang for RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.