While repeatedly threatening South Korea’s total destruction, North Korea has fired several cruise missiles in waters off its east coast and conducted a test launch of a solid-fuel, hypersonic intermediate-range ballistic missile on Jan. 14. If North Korea’s claims are accurate, it must be a maneuverable re-entry vehicle with a warhead capable of locating its target in the terminal phase. Throughout 2022, North Korea launched 103 missiles. Last year, it shot about 60 projectiles, including three intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The reason for North Korea’s nuclear blackmail is its unchanging goal of coercing Seoul and eventual communist unification of South Korea. It desperately develops nukes capable of striking the contiguous US and Guam to neutralize the US-South Korea alliance — the biggest obstacle to communist reunification.
Put differently, it wants the US to abandon South Korea out of fear. Meanwhile, China continues its military threats against Taiwan since its election on Jan. 13 of pro-US Democratic Progressive Party candidate Vice President William Lai (賴清德).
Against this backdrop of heightened tensions over the Taiwan Strait and on the Korean Peninsula, former US assistant secretary of state for Political Military Affairs Robert Gallucci in his Jan. 11 article in The National Interest warned of the possibility of nuclear war in South Asia and suggested normalizing US-North Korea relations and setting aside the North Korean denuclearization and sanctions agenda. In South Korea, there are also “progressive” perspectives arguing to appease and assist North Korea for peace rather than quarreling over nukes or imposing sanctions.
Surely, it is okay for Seoul to choose a conciliatory or firm stance toward the North as long as it is based on solid security.
However, a conciliatory approach without security assurance would be problematic, as a mistaken policy in this nuclear era could mean the disappearance of South Korea.
If Gallucci suggests peaceful relations with North Korea as a way to obtain security, he has gotten the equation completely wrong. If his argument represents the majority view among US policymakers, the agonies of countries hinging their fate on US alliances would only deepen.
Some South Korean experts carefully scour the whole picture of a “Neo-Cold War” confrontation in which “rogue coalition” countries and their proxies intimately collaborate with one another to forcibly change the “status quo.” They take heed of the causal relations among armed conflicts in global hot spots such as Ukraine, Palestine, southern Lebanon and the Bab el Mandeb Strait, closely watching North Korea’s militaristic involvement everywhere.
They worry about the West’s lack of military preparedness and decisiveness needed to confront rogue states wielding formidable, long-sharpened prowess. They watch in disquiet as the US continues to show reluctance to respond robustly to those on the rampage to destroy the international order in the Middle East.
Understandably, South Korean pundits are extremely sensitive to what messages this sends North Korea. For example, the rogue state might perceive policy suggestions like Gallucci’s as evidence of a “fading America.” It might believe its nuclear gamble is succeeding in scaring Americans, and that Washington is beginning to accept it as a legitimate nuclear state. Such a scenario would invigorate North Korea to accelerate bombmaking and persist in destabilizing actions, rather than restrain them. It might feel tempted to start a war, doubting the credibility of the US’ defense commitment to South Korea.
Given that North Korean nukes would immediately become priority targets for US-South Korea forces if a war breaks out, North Korea is likely to face a “use-it-now-or-lose-it” dilemma. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un must have tried to justify in advance such a pre-emptive use of nukes, which is why he openly redefined South Korea as the “the number one enemy state.” All these imply a high likelihood of first use of nukes in the early stages of a conflict. This is why a nuclear Armageddon might start in the Korean Peninsula in a worst-case scenario.
It is crucial for the US and the international community to not solely see the North Korean nuclear issue as a problem bound to the Korean Peninsula or one South Korea should handle alone.
What South Koreans badly want is firm deterrence mechanisms against this nuclear threat before choosing a North Korea policy.
In this sense, South Koreans are thankful that the Washington Declaration and the Camp David trilateral summit upgraded the extended deterrence and opened the way for security cooperation among democratic nations.
If this does not suffice, the two allies need to study every necessary security measure, including redeployment of US tactical nukes, Korean-made nuclear-powered submarines and a nuclear-armed South Korea. Deciding policy lines comes next.
Lastly, I would like to ask Gallucci to remember that the 1994 Agreed Framework he initiated as the chief negotiator ultimately failed to stop the North’s die-hard nuclear ambitions.
A policy failure at this time would be incomparably deadlier than in 1994. If the US’ incorrect choice of North Korea policy or strategy provokes the North’s tragic miscalculations, policymakers or experts like Gallucci might simply express regret and say, “Oops, it did not work as I thought.” At the same time, a Northeast Asian state that achieved both liberal democracy and prosperity by allying with the US might disappear from the map.
Above all, most South Koreans, remembering the value of the 70-year-old alliance that has made South Korea’s survival and economic miracle possible, earnestly expect a “return of a strong America” this year.
Tae-woo Kim is senior research fellow of nuclear security research at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.
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