Experts are split on how the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan could affect North Korea. Some argue that the collapse of Kabul, triggered by the withdrawal of U.S. forces, could encourage North Korea's nuclear ambitions, while others suggest the fall of Kabul may work against Pyongyang because getting Washington's attention would be harder given the complex aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
After maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan for 20 years, the U.S. fully vacated its largest military base, Bagram Airfield, on July 2 and transferred control to Afghan forces.
Then, in early August, Taliban forces swept across Afghanistan and began taking control of major provincial capitals. On Sunday, the Taliban claimed the capital city of Kabul, and Afghanistan came under its control.
In the past, North Korea has often used major crises to ramp up anti-U.S. rhetoric. Demanding the troop removal was a recurring theme.
And as the Taliban pushed from provincial capitals to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, North Korea resumed its rhetoric against the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea as the allied nations engaged in annual joint military exercises.
"For peace to settle on the peninsula, it is imperative for the U.S. to withdraw its aggression troops and war hardware deployed in South Korea," said Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, on August 10.
North Korea dropped the demand in 2018, while embarking on a charm offensive.
Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said the U.S. troop withdrawal and the subsequent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban could embolden North Korea to direct their "propaganda efforts to say the U.S. should leave (South) Korea as well."
He added: "North Korea clearly does not hope to win some sort of war against the U.S., but it clearly hopes that if it waits Washington out, (the U.S.) will eventually accept it as a nuclear weapons state or at least unofficially accept it."
Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said Pyongyang has ratcheted up efforts to weaken the U.S.-South Korea alliance. He warned that North Korea should not miscalculate the situation in Afghanistan.
"The North Koreans would be wise not to draw wrong conclusions about what they are witnessing here, because America is still a very strong, very powerful, and a very capable country, and the North Koreans should not allow this unfortunate sequence of events that we've seen in recent days to give them a wrong message," Revere said.
Revere said North Korea has two key aims in its relations with the U.S.
"The North Koreans have long wanted to see the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula," said Revere, who is now affiliated with the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington.
"North Korea's goal is to undermine the alliance and bring it to an end. That has not changed over the years. And what we've seen in recent years is that the North Koreans have become much more active in trying to bring about this situation" than in previous years, added Revere.
Targeting the alliance
Ken Gause, director of the Adversary Analytics Program at the CNA research center in Arlington, Virginia, said the recent developments in Kabul could bolster Pyongyang's efforts to break the alliance between Washington and Seoul.
"North Korea may see the U.S. as wounded right now, and maybe there are some benefits to North Korea in terms of adding pressure and driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea," said Gause.
Gause thinks it will become more difficult for Pyongyang to get sanctions relief from the Biden administration — something it has hoped to obtain since the Trump administration — now that Washington must handle the aftermath of Afghanistan.
"What does this do in terms of the Biden administration's willingness to engage with North Korea and put sanctions on the table, I would say, is probably much weaker now than it would have been before Afghanistan," said Gause.
Gause said he expects the Biden administration will be in "lockdown mode, trying to figure out how to move forward on its various foreign policy fronts." He added, "They've got other issues that are higher up on that agenda than North Korea right now."
Retired U.S. Army General James Thurman, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea from 2011 to 2013, said what happened in Kabul testifies to the importance of military readiness against North Korean aggression.
"I'm confident in the South Korean military, very confident, having spent nearly three years over there training with them," Thurman said.
"It's a completely different set of circumstances. But I think our adversaries are emboldened when they see something like this take place," Thurman added, referring to the fall of Kabul.
South Koreans weigh in
The sudden collapse of Kabul sparked some concern among residents of Seoul, South Korea's capital, triggering debates over national security.
Kim Yo-whan told VOA's Korean service on Tuesday that she is concerned the chaos of Kabul could be repeated in South Korea, where groups are advocating for the departure of U.S. forces.
"The Taliban took control of major regions soon after the U.S. military withdrew, and that could easily happen in South Korea," said Kim, who owns a small business. "The U.S. forces in South Korea are the last line of defense toward free democracy" in the region, she added.
Yoon Sae-jung, a schoolteacher, thinks otherwise. She told VOA, "The U.S. will not decide easily that it will withdraw from South Korea" because "South Korea is geopolitically important" to counter China.
Lee Kwon-yeol, an office worker, also thinks the U.S. will not withdraw because "South Korea and Afghanistan are different strategically."
On Tuesday, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said President Joe Biden "has no intention of drawing down our forces from South Korea."
The U.S. military presence in South Korea has lasted about 70 years, from the time it entered the Korean Peninsula to fight against North Korea, which invaded the South in 1950. Approximately 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed there to defend against any potential aggression from the North.
Its military alliance with South Korea was solidified by a mutual defense treaty signed after the war ended, in 1953.
Taeksung Oh contributed to this report.