Korea’s circled game
North Korea was at the center of it all. After the launch of the Pukkuksong-2 missile on Feb. 12, the North carried out 17 missile launches throughout the year. On Sept. 3, the North conducted its sixth nuclear test by successfully detonating a hydrogen bomb 17 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
On Nov. 29, the North fired a new intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of reaching all areas of the U.S. mainland, shaking the entire global security climate.
The next two or three months is the period the North needs to complete its nuclear and missile programs by mass-producing nuclear warheads. That is why Trump is threatening a military option by saying that time is running out. By next spring, South Korea will have to live with a nuclear-armed North. Unfortunately, the timing comes with the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
Two months into his presidency, President Moon Jae-in said in his speech in Berlin in July that the sports event will serve as a starting point to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue. He invited North Korean athletes to the Games. The same message continued in his Liberation Day speech. Although the North snubbed the proposal, he is undeterred.
The concept of the security policy of the Moon administration was concentrated on the PyeongChang Olympic Games, no matter what happened. The government sent a message to China that it will not deploy any additional Thaad systems, it will not join the U.S.-led missile defense regime and it will not form a trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan.
Amid the criticism of his humiliating diplomacy, Moon openly opposed the U.S. military option after his summit with Xi on Dec. 14. On Dec. 19, he also made public that he had proposed to the United States to delay joint military exercises until after the PyeongChang Olympic Games.
When Moon was talking about the potential delay during his train trip to promote the games, U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson said in Canada that Washington will not talk to Pyongyang unless it is ready to give up nuclear arms.
He then said a North Korea crisis response conference will be held in Vancouver on Jan. 16 with the countries that fought in the Korean War, along with important regional allies.
The White House, through the newly released National Security Strategy and an interview by H.R. McMaster, also made clear that it will take “all necessary steps” to compel North Korea to denuclearize, stressing military options.
The United States also named North Korea the culprit of the latest cyber terrorism attacks, to add further pressure. The U.S. moves are in clear contrast to Moon’s.
The joint military exercises between Korea and the United States have been continued since 1978 to counter North Korea’s provocations or any contingency.
There was never an incident when the Korea-U.S. combined forces launched an attack on the North first. The Rangoon bombing, kidnapping of the Korean Air flight, torpedoing of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island were all done by the North.
Suspending or reducing the joint military exercises is a strategic card used by the North, China and Russia to force U.S. troops out of the South. That is why China and Russia have been pushing the “dual suspension” proposal since last year.
It is possible that the United States will accept Moon’s request because it does not want its differences with its ally to be made public. But concerns are growing about Korea’s diplomatic leaning toward China. “There is a high possibility that the United States will skip Korea in strategic discussions,” said a source well-informed about affairs in Washington. “U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley had mentioned the possibility that American athletes may not attend the PyeongChang Olympics.”
No expert in Korea or abroad believes Kim Jong-un will give up his nuclear program. Even if the North participates in the Olympic Games and sits down for dialogue, it is destined to be a masquerade. Concerns are high that Moon’s “peace Olympics” idea will undermine the security of the Korean Peninsula and buy the North time to complete its nuclear aims. Is this what Moon really wants?
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 22, Page 36
*The author is a senior writer on diplomacy and security at the JoongAng Ilbo.