South Korea’s Looming Choice

Following Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, most of the media and analytical focus tended to revolve around his “nuclear button,” his statement that North Korea would begin “mass production” of nuclear weapons, or more hopefully, his surprising outreach toward the South Korean government of Moon Jae-in, which has resulted in the first official inter-Korean dialogue in more than two years. Lost in the clamor was perhaps the most revealing line of Kim’s speech: that of inter-Korean relations being “an internal matter that the south and north should resolve on their own responsibility.”

The end goal of such a resolution, of course, is reunification of the Peninsula – a vision that Kim alluded to no fewer than 12 times during his address. To the North Korean leadership, reunification is something that excludes the involvement of outside forces. And this pursuit of autonomy is what makes the looming showdown over the North’s nuclear program such a dangerous and difficult issue to solve.

Conventional wisdom holds that the North Koreans have pursued the nuclear program at great cost to their country for one of two reasons: for self-defense against an American attack, or as a means to force the U.S. military to withdraw from the Korean Peninsula. Either way, the progress Pyongyang has shown in improving its weapons technology has made Washington more pessimistic about the prospects of North Korea giving up these weapons or the ability to contain them by using classic deterrence strategies of sanctions and military threats. At the same time, the Trump administration remains unwilling to drop denuclearization as its ultimate goal for the Korean Peninsula.

As a result, the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula remains palpable, despite the temporary reprieve provided by the recent inter-Korean dialogue. Consider this the warm-up act to the main event, when the United States and North Korea are forced to confront each other around the negotiating table, with both sides pursuing objectives that are completely anathema to the other. And this is when South Koreans are going to find themselves facing an extremely unpleasant decision.

President Trump has made clear that he will not allow his country to be threatened with nuclear weapons, and as a result, the U.S. military is currently engaging in “unprecedented, intensive” planning for a preemptive strike on North Korea. In the words of U.S. senator Tammy Duckworth, “the military [is] saying the president is likely to make this decision [to attack] and we need to be ready.” Duckworth would know;  she is an Iraq War veteran who lost her legs after her helicopter was shot down, and maintains close ties with the defense community.

Another person who would know is Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent golfing buddy of the president’s, who is perhaps Trump’s closest ally in Congress. Last month, Graham put a figure on the current likelihood of the Trump administration taking preemptive military action against North Korea at 30 percent, which would rise to 70 percent if Kim Jong-un were to test another nuclear weapon. Those are terrible odds, particularly if the only way that war can be prevented is by relying on the restraint of the North Korean regime.

And are [South Koreans] prepared to follow their ally into a war that would have catastrophic consequences in terms of human life, economic damage, and environmental fallout?  

Indeed, the track record of North Korea on that issue is hardly encouraging. The last time the U.S. reached any kind of agreement with the North Koreans — the so-called Leap Day Deal of 2012 — Pyongyang violated terms by conducting a missile test of exactly the type it had pledged not to do fewer than six weeks before. This is a regime that has shown itself to have no qualms about carrying out lethal provocations, with the suspected sinking of the Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010 being two of the most prominent examples.

With the protection afforded by a nuclear deterrent, North Korean leaders will likely feel more emboldened about undertaking such provocations in the event that negotiations hit a stumbling block or if, as is more likely the case, they become more desperate as the economy suffers further due to international sanctions. In that instance, the Trump administration is going to be under immense pressure to respond, particularly from a political base which overwhelmingly supports taking military action in the event diplomacy fails.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in has gamely and consistently tried to rule out the possibility of war, most recently during his summit with Chinese president Xi Jinping when the two leaders reiterated that the military option was not a solution to dealing with the North’s nuclear program. Moon has also sought to enable the South Korean military to stand on its own by increasing the defense budget, taking advantage of Trump’s affinity for arms sales to stock up on billions of dollars in military hardware, and asking for and receiving the removal of weight restrictions for South Korean ballistic missiles.  

Moon has also renewed a push for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the U.S. back to the South Korean military.  

Perhaps most significantly, Moon’s surrogates are starting to float trial balloons questioning the utility of the U.S.-ROK alliance. During a meeting of the East Asia Future Foundation in September, Professor Moon Chung-In of Yonsei University, the president’s special advisor on North Korea policy, made comments stating that even if the alliance shattered, war should never be allowed to break out on the Korean Peninsula. While the professor qualified this by stating that it was only his personal opinion, the lack of an official rebuke would seem to imply tacit approval from the Blue House.  

Despite outcry from conservatives over these remarks, Moon was right: if anything, the persistence of the alliance makes war more likely to break out, for three reasons. Apart from the aforementioned skepticism regarding the continued utility of deterrence, the U.S. is entering an election year when the majority Republican Party seems poised for heavy congressional losses. Trump’s approval rating is at historic lows, the party just lost a Senate seat in Alabama — one of the most conservative states in the country — and Congress recently passed a massive tax bill that is opposed by 2/3 of the American public.

For a party facing a near certain wipeout in the elections, ginning up a war with North Korea may not seem like such a bad idea, given the potential for a short-term bump in support as a result of the “rally-round-the-flag” political effects. Indeed, this was a strategy employed by the Bush administration in the run-up to the 2002 congressional elections, holding a vote on the Iraq War resolution that October and then casting opponents of that resolution as unpatriotic during the election the following month, in which the Republican Party scored a landslide victory.    

The third factor is the ongoing uncertainty caused by Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The former FBI Director is getting closer to Trump’s inner circle, having won a guilty plea from Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn earlier this month. As the investigation continues to progress, there is a real danger that the notoriously volatile president could lash out, either in a fit of pique or through cold calculation that a war would distract public attention from the president’s legal troubles.  

Again, there is a recent historical precedent for this: In the midst of impeachment proceedings in December 1998, then-President Bill Clinton launched a major bombing campaign against Iraq, which leading Republicans asserted was a thinly-veiled attempt at shifting public focus.

The indicators for war on the U.S. side seem to be very clear, and the Chinese government has been sufficiently spooked into establishing refugee camps to handle the massive exodus of North Koreans who would flee the country in the event of a conflict. While many Americans – including myself – remain strongly opposed to war and several members of Congress have moved to restrain Trump from launching a first strike, the reality is that if the president decides to order military action, there is little that can be done to prevent him from doing so.

South Koreans, then, need to start asking themselves some hard questions: namely, do they trust both Trump and Kim Jong-un to exercise restraint? And are they prepared to follow their ally into a war that would have catastrophic consequences in terms of human life, economic damage, and environmental fallout?  

If the answer to these questions is “no,” it warrants a serious public debate on the status of the U.S.-ROK alliance and the presence of the U.S. military in South Korea. Unfortunately, President Moon has so far failed (or chosen not) to communicate this reality to the public, who for the most part seem to be oblivious to the fact the ground is shifting beneath their feet, and that their longtime protector may not turn out to be such a benevolent force after all.

Conservatives will predictably howl about how a decoupling of the alliance is exactly what Kim Jong-un wants — Kim’s idea of reunification, after all, presumably means a takeover of a weakened South devoid of American military protection. They may well be right. But South Korea going it alone and pursuing a less dysfunctional inter-Korean relationship — perhaps by exploring President Moon’s preference for a confederation — in order to maintain peace on the Peninsula would seem far preferable to blindly and uncritically clinging to an ally that is slowly dragging it down the road to certain destruction.      


Cover image: the United States versus North Korea (Source: Max Pixel)



Geoffrey Fattig is deputy editor of the Hankyoreh newspaper's English edition, and formerly worked as a speechwriter for the U.S. State Department. He has a master's degree in International Affairs from UC San Diego's School of International Relations/Pacific Studies.