A mass delusion
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Inter-Korean reconciliation is the flavor of the day. Politicians and the media are no longer worried about a preemptive attack on the Korean Peninsula. The mood is festive and carefree.
Then it occurred to me, “What about the North Korean nuclear program?” The answer? There hasn’t been any progress. Perhaps, the uranium enrichment equipment is constantly operating in an underground bunker in the reclusive state.
Korean society is caught up in a mass delusion that the North Korean nuclear crisis is over. Inter-Korean cooperation is being promoted and everything else is being ignored. Earlier this month, Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Do Jong-hwan visited Pyongyang and dangled a few offerings. He proposed a revival of the Seoul-Pyeongyang soccer match, a joint entrance of athletes at the upcoming Asian Games in Jakarta, a compilation of a common Korean dictionary and a joint excavation of Manwoldae in Pyongyang. Candidates for the Gyeonggi elected offices are promising the construction of another Kaesong Industrial Complex. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un joined the chorus by proposing a joint South-North concert in Seoul in the fall.
Peaceful inter-Korean exchanges are desirable, of course, but it wouldn’t be late to promote them after the North Korean nuclear problem is addressed. You can’t put the cart before the horse. On April 12, President Moon Jae-in met with a group of senior advisers and stressed that inter-Korean relations can be restored once a denuclearization agreement is implemented between North Korea and the United States.
While it garnered little attention in South Korea, foreign media outlets focused on the fact that Pompeo described the goal of a U.S.-North summit as the removal of threats against the United States. Asked about the purpose of the summit, he said the summit aimed “to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably.” He did not mention the security of allies.
At that moment, Republican Senator Cory Gardner asked if “the only goal the United States has in relation to North Korea is denuclearization.” Pompeo said, “We need to ensure that we continue to provide a strategic deterrence framework for our allies in the region: The South Koreans, the Japanese and others as well. But the purpose of the meeting is to address the threat to the United States.” It sounds to me like security of allies could be sacrificed to a degree for national interests of the United States.
Such a U.S.-focused security stance is unsurprising from the Trump administration. Since early 2017, the Trump administration constantly underscored that North Korean nuclear weapons threatening the U.S. mainland would not be condoned. But a security guarantee for allies was not included in the Maginot line.
In a visit to the United States, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to ask Trump to remove short and mid-range missiles from North Korea since the removal of its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) would be meaningless to Japan.
How about Korea? Even when these risky comments are made, the Korean government seems optimistic. Unless it believes that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are targeting the United States, not South Korea, they shouldn’t be so sanguine. Some Korean experts in America are worrying about South Korea. They predict that Trump would compromise at stopping North Korea’s ICBM development at the summit. In that case, he would virtually condone the North’s nuclear possession. The Trump administration does not care whether South Korea and Japan are within range of the North’s short- and mid-range missiles. That’s the worst-case scenario: South Korea’s security is sacrificed.
We must watch whether North Korea is trying to buy time or is really determined to pursue peaceful coexistence. The Moon administration must obsess with improving inter-Korean ties. It is too early to pop the champagne.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 17, Page 30