Faint red lines

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Faint red lines

Controversy surrounding President Moon Jae-in’s “red line” is growing serious. During a press conference on Thursday, the president described his red line as North Korea developing the capability to top its intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, and now both liberals and conservatives are expressing concerns.

The liberals worry that the definition will limit our options. North Korea will soon master the technology to build intercontinental ballistic missiles loaded with nuclear warheads. It actually claims it has succeeded in doing so. When the time comes, what will we do? The voice of hard-line conservatives will inevitably grow stronger, even if Seoul doesn’t take military action.

Until now, we have drawn many red lines over Pyongyang’s nuclear arms program. Extracting plutonium was the first red line. Uranium enrichment, detonation tests and nuclear tests were later defined as red lines, and countless warnings were issued. But each time North Korea crossed one red line, another was drawn.

South Korea has been insensitive to Pyongyang’s missile program, treating it as if it were someone else’s business after the North managed to develop missiles capable of reaching Japan, Guam, Alaska and then the American West Coast. When the North’s missiles are capable of reaching Japan or the United States, it becomes an absolute factor that influences the strategy of an alliance.

Once you declare a red line, you cannot back out of it. In 2012, President Barack Obama had a difficult time after drawing a red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “Unfortunately, the red line that the president of the United States has written was apparently written in disappearing ink,” Senator John McCain said.

Conservatives in South Korea are complaining about why Moon defined the red line as intercontinental ballistic missiles topped with nuclear warheads. They argue the South is within range of the North’s Rodong missiles and the only reason Moon has draw a red line on the issue is because intercontinental ballistic missiles are threats to the United States. They have further criticized Moon for allowing the North to mistake its previous provocations as acceptable. When you show all your cards, your negotiating power weakens and you lose the game. Because Moon called it a warning, he has shown his cards and failed to pressure the North.

President Donald Trump fired his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, shortly after he argued there was no military option and the withdrawal of American forces from South Korea could be considered in exchange for the North’s nuclear freeze. Those are ideas often discussed in the United States. Former State Secretary Henry Kissinger has made a similar proposal. If Bannon was a civilian expert, there would have been no problem. But he was a senior official, and the situation meant Washington was showing all its cards.

Bannon’s remark should have been treated as a slip of the tongue. The more serious problem is in South Korea, where Moon has drawn another red line. “Only South Korea can decide on military action on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said, “and no one can make a decision on taking military action without the South’s consent.” The North will never seek our consent, so it was a message to the United States.
Moon was checking Trump’s “fire and fury” remark. It’s interesting to note that Trump fired Bannon for making remarks similar to Moon’s. The Korea-U.S. alliance appears to be unstable. If the allies openly collide, it means secret mediations are difficult.

Moon said Friday that the two Koreas will meet again by walking down the path set by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and that the time of hope will open. Kim, however, was a true realist. He once said a leader must only be half a step ahead of the public. He was against being a doctrinaire leader. He had a clear belief that inter-Korean reconciliation must be flexible.

Kim was very prudent in pushing forward his North Korea policy. Before holding an inter-Korean summit, he persuaded the United States. He not only met officials but also scholars to promote his idea. In the South, he persuaded the public by quoting from “Aesop’s Fables.” He also sought help from conservative scholars.

All that strengthened his negotiating power against the North. The situation is far more difficult now. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have advanced too quickly. We do not have anything to offer to Pyongyang. The UN Security Council’s sanctions have blocked all possible means to offer money to the North. A nuclear-armed North thinks it is in a different league from the South. It is embarrassing for the South to offer regime security to the North, and the larger the differences between Seoul and the United States, the more our promise to block U.S. military action against the North will lose its power.

China is the only remaining option. Are we going to beg China to pressure the North? Unless we give up on the alliance — actually, unless the United States scraps its alliance with South Korea — China will not give up on the North.

What are Washington’s options if it won’t take military action? It may offer a pause on joint military exercises with the South. Will the North stop nuclear tests? The answer is no. The North may do so if American forces leave the South. The top priority of the United States is its own security.

For South Korea to take the driver’s seat, we have to present a great resolution and persuade our neighbors. To this end, our first task will be erasing the red line inside us. We must expand consensus with the United States and within our country.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 21, Page 31

*The author is a columnist at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Kim Jin-kook
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