Concern about possible armed clashes on the Korean Peninsula is mounting, with North Korea expected to conduct an atomic bomb test in the near future and a US aircraft carrier group heading to South Korean waters.
US President Donald Trump has vowed to act against the North unilaterally if China refuses to help him. He has asked his national security team for a “full range of options to remove” the North Korean threat. The options are believed to include military action.
The recent US missile attack on a Syrian government air base signals it will not sit on its hands when the North conducts atomic or missile tests.
The US has reportedly notified Australia that it is fully prepared to shoot down any ballistic missiles North Korea may launch.
These developments have added to speculations the US will strike North Korea pre-emptively or preventively.
However, the chances of the US taking military action against the North are slim, given the possibility of an all-out war. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the US has made clear it would not act against the North without consulting the South.
Pre-emptive strikes are never an easy job. If the US hits North Korea, the North will strike back, and the US and South Korea will counterattack. The most destructive war since the Korean War would break out on the Korean Peninsula.
Unless a preventive strike were to rid North Korea of its nuclear facilities and weapons of mass destruction all at once, their counterattack would be unavoidable.
From a military point of view, it seems impossible to destroy all the weapons North Korea may use to counterattack after such a strike.
Mentioning such extreme measures as a preventive strike as an option reflects the shortage of untapped diplomatic tools. It indicates how difficult the North Korean threat has become to remove. The international community has tried nearly every nonmilitary measure.
Just because the military option is too risky does not mean it should be off the table. It should remain a realistic course of action to consider against the North Korean threat. Given the North has advanced its nuclear weapons technology to some extent, the possibility that it may not be an empty word should be open.
The chances of a clash will rise when South and North Korea aim increasingly powerful weapons at each other, with all dialogue channels closed between them. The South should be fully prepared to deal with such a volatile situation.
China is instrumental in impacting North Korean nuclear and missile threats. After the latest US-China summit talks, Beijing maintains a position that North Korea and the US should stop provoking each other and start dialogue, but the US is unlikely to heed the Chinese call.
China should do more against the North and its nukes this time. It should strongly persuade Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear program.
Regarding dialogue with the North, the US and South Korea should take precautions against the possible recurrence of a vicious circle. The North may agree a deal to freeze its nukes in exchange for rewards, then break the deal while blaming the US or the South, conduct nuke tests and resume negotiations, demanding more rewards.
The thing is South Korea’s stance on the North Korean threat. As a nation directly targeted by the North, South Korea should think of how to keep in step with the US in efforts to remove the threat.
Vague hopes are a thing to be avoided when it comes to national security. Expecting China to discard the North and side with the South in the present situation would be a naive wish. Ideas of South Korea playing a balancing role between China and the US or keeping equidistance to both countries have no place in the rapidly changing international order.
South Korea needs to adjust its relations with the US and China to the new security environment, yet it should do so based on its tight alliance with the US.