Bracing for the worst

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Bracing for the worst

Dark clouds are rapidly gathering over the Korean Peninsula with less than a week until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president. Following hawkish remarks at Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing by Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state — in which he called North Korea “a grave threat to the world security” — Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis, a retired Marine general, said Thursday that he will soon present Congress with a report that includes a plan to destroy the North’s nuclear facilities.

In such a volatile situation, South Korea faces a serious leadership vacuum after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. On Monday, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, acting president, discussed urgent security issues with ambassadors to the United States, China, Japan, Russia and the United Nations in Seoul. His decision to summon the five key envoys shows the government’s growing concerns about our national security.

The plan being drafted by U.S. Defense Secretary nominee Mattis is a preemptive attack against North Korean nuclear facilities as a reaction to Kim Jong-un’s statement in his New Year’s speech that the country has finished preparations for the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). A preemptive strike at the North has resurfaced for the first time since the Clinton administration in 1994. Washington can hardly afford to dismiss Pyongyang’s latest threat to attack the U.S. mainland with its ICBMs any longer.

Security experts compare the North’s ICBM threat to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. At the time, President John F. Kennedy demanded the USSR immediately stop building a missile base in Cuba, even risking nuclear war. If Mattis enforces a plan to destroy nuclear facilities in the North, security on the peninsula could swing out of control, including the possibility of a military clash between South and North Korea.

Nevertheless, our politicians — particularly former opposition leader Moon Jae-in, current frontrunner in the polls ahead of the presidential election — are flip-flopping on the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea. The opposition camp even insists on resuming suspended Mount Kumgang tourism and the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. But if security collapses, we lose everything.

We urge the government to keep in touch with Washington. Our Ministry of National Defense must be thoroughly prepared for any possible contingencies down the road.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 17, Page 30
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