South Korea’s choiceU.S. President Donald Trump and his foreign affairs and security aides made a series of hardline remarks toward North Korea since the election campaign in November last year. “The policy of strategic patience has ended,” “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment,” and “All options are on the table,” are some of the key pieces of rhetoric. And a preemptive strike on the North’s nuclear and missile facilities may be at the top of the list of Washington’s options.
The warnings to the North were not empty words. For the Foal Eagle–Key Resolve drills, advanced strategic bombers and an aircraft carrier fleet were sent to the Korean Peninsula. Outside Korea, perceptions are growing that the security situation on the peninsula is deteriorating — and could possibly be on the brink of war.
Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a summit in such a tense environment. Trump repeatedly said China has not done enough to check the North’s activities and that the U.S. will act if China does not control the North. That was why last week’s summit attracted so much attention from the international community, not to mention the high expectations that the two leaders would reach some kind of accord on North Korea.
That didn’t happen. Trump invited Xi to his resort in Florida and issued an order to warships in the Mediterranean Sea to attack a Syrian air base. The warships launched 59 cruise missiles as retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. But the attack was also a warning to China and North Korea.
The summit ended without a joint press conference or joint communiqué. Nothing is known about how deeply the leaders discussed the North Korea issue except reconfirmation of their intolerance of nuclear weapons and strong sanctions on North Korea.
The United States and China have clear positions on the North’s weapons of mass destruction. Uncle Sam will not tolerate the North’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), capable of attacking the U.S. mainland. From Washington’s point of view, Pyongyang will be crossing a red line when it succeeds in the atmospheric reentry test for such a missile, the final step to clinching ICBM technology. In this case, the Trump administration will seriously consider the option of a preemptive strike.
A preemptive strike could trigger a second Korean War. Our next administration will face the challenge of stopping a U.S. preemptive strike or deciding to join the U.S. if there is a clear sign of provocation by the North. South Korea cannot allow the U.S. to make the decision alone to start a war on the peninsula.
Tough and impulsive, Trump pressured Xi to control the North by using trade as leverage, but Xi, an experienced and crafty statesman, defended China’s existing principles and did not make a sure promise about the North. The trouble starts now. Even if America deployed its best strategic assets to the peninsula, Kim Jong-un may not change his behavior. If the North succeeds in firing a mid-range ballistic missile — which will lead to the development of ICBM technology — and conducts a sixth nuclear test, Trump must act. Or else, trust in America’s extended deterrence could be shaken. South Korea must make its position clear in advance about a U.S.-led preemptive strike.
A rumor spread that Trump and Xi agreed to send Kim into exile overseas, but it was born of a total lack of understanding of how confident Kim is today. For China, which is confronting the U.S in the western Pacific, including the South China Sea, North Korea is a core strategic buffer. That is why it has not cut the oil pipeline to the North despite pressure from the U.S. and the international community.
A proposal is quietly gaining momentum in America to introduce a “cap” method to end the nuclear crisis. That’s a compromise between a nuclear freeze and a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement. A nuclear freeze always comes with the possibility of a defreeze down the line when conditions change. Not a good option. But a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement is unrealistic because North Korea, for now, has no intention of giving up its nuclear program. Putting some sort of a cap on the North’s nuclear capabilities has the precondition that the cap won’t be lifted. But there is no guarantee that the North will stick to the cap, so it shares the same weakness as the freeze. Therefore, advocates of the nuclear cap plan argue that the establishment of diplomatic ties between the North and the U.S. and peace negotiations should be pushed forward in parallel with the cap process.
The U.S. deployment of strategic assets to the peninsula could also mean a first step to starting North Korea-U.S. dialogue. It is fortunate that opponents of a preemptive strike exist even in the U.S. They know it will lead to war on the peninsula. The problem, however, is that North Korea insists on talking only with the U.S., while showing no faith in China.
We must not receive a bill after North-U.S. bilateral dialogue, as we did with the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. We must confirm our roadmap for inter-Korean talks, establishment of peace and unification. Making sure that the superpowers reflect this roadmap in their North Korea policy should be the top priority of our next administration’s North Korea and foreign policies.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 12, Page 29
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.