Take a deep breathIs South Korea at risk of war? U.S Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “Yes” in a telephone conversation Tuesday with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se. The two allies said they could conduct a preemptive strike on North Korea’s key military facilities, including nuclear weapons and missiles, if there were any tangible signs of attack. Does that mean that if the North’s military threats are imminent, they would be ready to preemptively strike such facilities at the risk of war?
Security officials in Seoul and Washington have a habit of maintaining tension by predicting the timing of a provocation by the North and then readjusting it to a later date when their predictions prove wrong. Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert on North Korean issues, is joining the chorus. After jumping to the conclusion in his 2012 book “The Impossible State” that North Korea would collapse during the Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye administrations, he recently reiterated in Seoul that Pyongyang will likely make a provocation shortly after the launch of the Donald Trump administration.
Security experts tend to forecast the exact timing of a provocation. Given the North’s past trajectory, however, its launch of ballistic missiles and nuclear tests cannot constitute an immediate danger now.
When could North Korea really pose a security threat to the U.S.? One thing that is clear is that the North would not be able to conduct a provocation strong enough to trigger a U.S. preemptive strike until Pyongyang has completed highly advanced technologies for atmospheric reentry of missiles and miniaturization of nuclear warheads. It seems that North Korea needs at least two more years to secure the capability to strike the U.S. mainland as well as making war-level provocations against South Korea and Japan. Needless to say, there is a need to thwart North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s belligerency through the deployment of America’s strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula.
Apathy about security issues is dangerous. Nevertheless, we don’t want our ally’s arbitrary raising of tensions to lead to unceasing demands from the military-industrial complex. Seoul has to tackle tough challenges like the Choi Soon-sil scandal, high joblessness, ever-deepening polarization of wealth, not to mention increasingly populist campaign pledges by presidential hopefuls. Who could address our economic pains if foreign investors rush out of the country because they panic about war?
JoongAng Ilbo Online, Feb. 8