16 stars over SeongjuThe climax for the so-called tinderbox on the Korean Peninsula in August appears to have passed. After the North fired intercontinental ballistic missiles, U.S. President Donald Trump responded with a threat of “fire and fury.” The North then threatened to “envelop” Guam with missiles. The momentum of this conflict, however, is weakening.
The number of U.S. troops participating in this year’s Korea-U.S. joint military exercise, which began Monday, was reduced by 7,500 from that of last year. Although Washington said it has nothing to do with the North, analysts said it gave a justification to Beijing and Pyongyang, which have long demanded the drill be scaled down or terminated. After the North said it will wait and see what the United States does on Aug. 15, it stopped escalating tensions.
“I respect the fact that he is starting to respect us,” Trump said of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Tuesday. “And maybe — probably not, but maybe — something positive can come about.” State Secretary Rex Tillerson also said Tuesday that “Pyongyang has shown restraint.”
The media also reported that the North and the United States started operating their New York channel. All the developments took place after Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 14 to investigate China’s alleged infringement of intellectual property laws.
The joint press conference held by four top U.S. military leaders in the U.S. Forces Korea’s Osan air base on Tuesday was an event that symbolizes the turning point and complexity of military options and diplomatic resolutions. Adm. Harry Harris, chief of the Hawaii-based Pacific Command; Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten; Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, and Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, commanding general of the U.S. Forces Korea, all attended the media event. They are in charge of U.S. military operations in time of a contingency on the peninsula.
Since the 1950-1955 Korean War, this was the first time that such heads gathered on the peninsula. And it was the first time they jointly held a press conference. Foreign media said it is rare to see four four-star generals gather even in Washington, unless it is for a wartime briefing. Wi Sung-rak, professor of Seoul National University, said it was a warning to the North.
Whenever the North-U.S. conflict turns to negotiation, concerns are always raised that the South will be overlooked while superpowers decide its fate. This was already seen during the recent Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Just because the South stressed that it will be in the driver’s seat and promotes inter-Korean talks, this alone cannot be a resolution. Building trust with the United States and taking the passenger seat is more important.
U.S. military leaders originally planned to hold their media conference at the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile base in Seongju, North Gyeongsang. But they changed the plan after the South Korean government dissuaded them by saying their event could provoke protesters. Instead, they visited the Thaad base using a helicopter after holding the joint press conference in Osan.
What would have they thought when they saw the protesters blocking the entry to the path from the aircraft? Before visiting Seongju, Admiral Harris met with leaders of the National Assembly and told them that the Thaad deployment was decided not by the U.S. government or the South Korean government, but by the Korea-U.S. alliance.
The crisis on the peninsula was often called a “fear” generated by Kim and Trump, but the U.S. response to the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile development would have been the same whether the president was Trump or not. It may have been a little more refined, but it would have been the same.
After Liberation Day, President Moon Jae-in said the United States cannot start a war on the Korean Peninsula without South Korea’s consent. He also said not only South Koreans, but also Americans and U.S. troops in Korea will be killed even in a limited war.
Who is the true provoker here? Is the North’s mastering of nuclear missile technology really someone else’s business? He also said the North will be crossing a red line if it develops the technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. For South Korea to be respected in negotiations, the priority must be sharing the same understanding with its ally and agreeing when it comes to threats.
The Moon administration has not allowed the U.S. military to install the remaining four Thaad launchers, citing the need for an environmental impact study. A member of Moon’s foreign and security advisory group said the president had to consider the opinions of his supporters who voted for him during the presidential election. Moon’s approval rating is around 80 percent. The people have given him enormous support. He must dispel any ambiguity over Thaad. His audience is not just domestic supporters, but also the international community.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 25, Page 28
*The author is a senior writer on foreign affairs and security at the JoongAng Ilbo.