Is Seoul any safer than Paris?

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Is Seoul any safer than Paris?

Lee Baek-soon

The author is a former ambassador to Australia.

In 2017, North Korea fired the Hwasong-14 inter-continental ballistic missile with a range of 12,000 kilometers (7,456 miles), openly demonstrating it could hit the West Coast of the United States. This year, the North resumed missile provocations. Its Hwasong-15 and 17 missiles showed that the recalcitrant state is capable of attacking eastern cities such as Washington D.C. and New York City.

Furthermore, North Korea is expected to conduct a seventh nuclear test and miniaturize and diversify its atomic weapons. The country appears to have already completed the miniaturization stage; it is heading toward the final stage of deploying tactical nuclear weapons by going through the diversification process.

What’s more worrisome is the North’s doctrine of preemptive use of nuclear weapons. At a military parade marking the 90th anniversary of the North Korean military on April 10, leader Kim Jong-un said the country will use nuclear weapons “preemptively and thoroughly to contain and frustrate all dangerous attempts and threatening moves, including ever-escalating nuclear threats from hostile forces, if necessary.”

Since it left the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in March 1993, North Korea has consistently developed nuclear weapons over the past 30 years. At first, the country pretended that nuclear development was a means for negotiation to win what it wants. Later, Pyongyang claimed that it was a self-defense measure against U.S. threats. But with its latest declaration of a preemptive nuclear usage doctrine, it announced publicly that its nukes are intended for attacks. As a result, South Korea faces its worst nightmare.

As South Korea already experienced various types of threats from North Korea, it is inured to the North’s nuclear threats. It is worrisome to see some people accept North Korea’s propaganda that the nuclear weapons are mutual assets of the Korean people and that Pyongyang has no intention to use them against the Korean people.

We must take the doctrine seriously. The biggest reason is that North Korea now possesses the means to block the U.S. nuclear umbrella. South Korea must rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella to resist North Korea’s attacks using conventional weapons or threats to use tactical weapons. But the reliability of this nuclear umbrella is in question as North Korea possesses intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. We want to believe that the U.S. nuclear umbrella is functioning properly, but Seoul and Washington have yet to complete the process to specify the mechanism of unfolding the nuclear umbrella.

It is an issue to be resolved through Korea-U.S. high-level extended deterrence consultation, which was agreed to at the Korea-U.S. summit in May. North Korea appeared to have the ability to launch secondary attacks by mass producing intercontinental ballistic missiles. Under these circumstances, we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question: Will the United States help South Korea despite the risks of Washington and New York being exposed to nuclear attacks?

During the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, France was uncertain about whether Paris would be protected by Uncle Sam, and the country launched a process to arm itself with nukes.

Some express optimism that North Korea will not undertake a preemptive strike as it knows it will face total destruction by retaliations from South Korea and the U.S.

But others contend that Kim Jong-un will use the logic of asymmetric expansion of war and preemptively use nuclear weapons with some limits, if he is really cool-headed and rational.

If South Korea and America are ready to start a preemptive strike in times of crisis, North Korea will conclude that it will be advantageous to preemptively use its nuclear weapons to stop it. That will help the North escape from the dilemma of “use-it or lose-it.”

For example, it will first stage a provocation against the South. And then, in order to stop the operation of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, North Korea will strike U.S. bases in Guam, from where its strategic assets and reinforcements will be deployed.

If North Korea faces a retaliatory attack from America, it will threaten to use its intercontinental ballistic missiles to attack major cities on the East Coast. In this case, more residents of Pyongyang are likely to survive the attacks because the city has more defense mechanisms than New York or Washington D.C. Unless there is a guarantee that America will use its nuclear umbrella against a North Korean aggression, South Korea will be left with almost no choice before a nuclear-armed North Korea.

The Yoon Suk-yeol administration must quickly come up with substantial — not rhetorical — measures to deter the North’s nuclear treats. No matter what it takes to defend our country against the North’s doctrine of preemptive use of nuclear weapons, we must pay for it. We must walk on a path with this determination.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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