What next after Panmunjom?
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
South Korea’s security has been placed at greater risk following the third North Korea-U.S. summit in Panmunjom. U.S. President Donald Trump has bought more time to deal with Iran and China, while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gained worldwide media attention in a show of peacemaking. President Moon Jae-in praised the political show in recent remarks, saying Kim and Trump practically declared an end to the 1950-53 Korean War and that the summit would lead to “a new era of peace.” South Korea has a nuclear-armed neighbor that has shown no decisive measure for denuclearization. As the nuclear crisis continues to deepen, some say it’s time to devise a Plan B.
The latest Trump-Kim summit was nothing more than a meeting to bring the two countries back to the starting line of denuclearization talks after their previous summit collapsed in Hanoi, Vietnam, in late February. For Trump, it was a stage show aimed at scoring political points ahead of his presidential re-election bid next year and a chance to contain Pyongyang’s provocations for the time being. Kim, on the other hand, will be relieved of pressure from Washington for some time, during which he can bulk up his nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals. Moon managed to assemble a scene showing leaders of the two countries that signed the Armistice Agreement 66 years ago coming together to ease hostility.
However, there was no real progress made in the denuclearization of North Korea. After the Panmunjom summit, some U.S. media outlets claimed that the Trump administration may settle for a nuclear freeze — which would essentially accept the status quo while prohibiting the regime from producing additional nuclear weapons. A nuclear freeze would translate into accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state. Pyongyang wants to justify its possession of nuclear arms in return for a phased denuclearization after freezing its nuclear development. In that case, there would be a large security gap between the two Koreas — one country with nuclear weapons and another without.
According to a paper by the Korea Research Institute for Strategy on North Korea’s denuclearization, which was published on June 17, North Korea is believed to currently possess 30 to 60 nuclear warheads based on estimations from the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. The report warned that North Korea is also capable of producing 12 nuclear weapons each year.
Throughout the denuclearization talks, Pyongyang has demanded security guarantees and the denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula. Recently, it even released commemorative coins emphasizing the denuclearization of the peninsula. But Pyongyang’s vision of a denuclearized peninsula includes the complete elimination of U.S. nuclear capabilities here, which means U.S. forces in South Korea would have to be reduced and then withdrawn. It also means that B-52 and B-2 stealth bombers and aircraft carriers from Hawaii and Guam cannot be deployed on the peninsula in the future. This is what North Korea means by security guarantees.
Yun Duk-min, former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, said he believes Kim Jong-un may strike a nuclear deal with Trump. If Pyongyang promises to destroy its ICBMs and not aim any nuclear weapons at America, and not transfer its nuclear weapons to terrorists or any third country, then Trump may agree to offer security guarantees, Yun said. But if Trump does provide security guarantees, that means North Korea would officially be recognized as a nuclear power, which, in turn, would mean that nothing would be left of the decades-old U.S.-South Korea alliance and South Korea’s security would be weakened further. Hence, providing security guarantees to North Korea is, paradoxically, a terrible scenario for South Korea.
Yun also pointed out that another goal of Pyongyang is to unify the Korean Peninsula under communist rule with its nuclear attack capabilities. In other words, North Korea would use its capability to hit the U.S. mainland to block American forces from entering South Korea, and try to unify both Koreas under the communist system. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it well last February when she said that North Korea was actually out to remove American forces from the peninsula, not denuclearization. Pyongyang did, in fact, convince Washington in their first summit on June 12, 2018, to reduce South Korea-U.S. joint military operations, effectively blocking U.S. strategic assets, including B2 bombers and aircraft carriers, from being deployed on the peninsula.
Security analysts now wonder if Washington would actually deploy its strategic weapons to South Korea in the advent of serious provocations by North Korea. Prof. Park Hwee-rhak of Kookmin University’s Graduate School of Politics and Leadership said Pyongyang may attack our warships as it did with the Cheonan corvette, suddenly invade our five northwestern-most islands, including Baengnyeong Island, and attack Seoul, or even worse, circumvent the capital area and go straight to the U.S military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi. Just as World War I and II, as well as the Korean War, took place because of misjudgments, Kim Jong-un could do the same this time as well.
In that case, if the United States responds by deploying its nuclear weapons and strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, its own cities could come under attack. That’s why Washington may hesitate to take such actions in the first place. We have witnessed such cases in Europe during the Cold War. But the major difference between that and the North Korean issue is that the South-U.S. alliance is weaker than the NATO alliance, Prof. Park said.
Jhe Seong-ho, a professor at Chung-Ang University Law School, analyzed that Moon’s “absolute pacifism” includes the following features: achieving an incomplete peace by being satisfied with North Korea’s partial denuclearization; a showing-off of peace by being obsessed with declarative phrases; artificial peace; and peace that depends on the North’s goodwill gestures by blindly undermining its own security capabilities. The peace President Moon envisions includes all the four points, as seen in his remarks that the U.S.-North summit in Panmunjom is a de facto declaration of the end of the Korean War.
The same goes for the Sept. 19 military agreement signed between the two Koreas in Pyongyang last year. The agreement effectively restricted South Korea’s intelligence gathering on the North Korean military, not to mention a reduction of our military drills.
The recent case of a North Korean boat docking in Samcheok Harbor, Gangwon, explicitly shows how Moon’s absolute pacifism has weakened our military readiness. Yet, the administration plans to retake wartime operational control by 2022. Such a decision would effectively lead to the dissolution of the South-U.S. alliance despite South Korea’s lack of defense capability.
Kim Sung-han, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University, who served as deputy foreign minister, believes that Seoul needs a Plan B in case Pyongyang refuses denuclearization talks after building more nuclear weapons and finding a way to survive through the loopholes of international sanctions. That Plan B, he said, must include the following: strengthening the United States’ extended deterrence; reintroducing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea; sharing U.S. nuclear weapons with South Korea as the United States does with NATO; and South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons. The professor also analyzed that South-U.S. strategic talks should advance to the next level because if Trump wins a second term in office next year and fails in his denuclearization negotiations with Pyongyang, he may try to withdraw American troops from South Korea. Prof. Kim also underscored that Seoul must mend ties with Tokyo because North Korea’s nuclear weapons could disrupt the trilateral military cooperation among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington sooner or later.
What’s more important than a unified Korean Peninsula are the lives of the South Korean people. As commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Moon’s role is to protect his people and the safety of the country. It’s about time he abides by that duty stipulated in the Constitution.