Japan and China have already taken clear-cut measures to safeguard their nationals and interests in the event of a looming military confrontation.
Meanwhile, Korean civilians -- who would suffer most devastatingly as “collateral damage” on account of preventive strikes against North Korea -- remain singularly and inexplicably vulnerable as well as thoroughly unprepared for the possibility.
Bewilderingly, South Korea’s opposition to such strikes has yet to be delivered to the US in an unequivocal and unwavering manner.
As political scientist John Delury stated regarding the “pre-emptive strike” scheme for a March 10 report, “The role of a South Korean president, whether liberal or conservative, is to be the person who gently takes that option off the table. The South Korean president has to be saying, ‘If you take out their missile pad, they take out our capital.’ But that hasn’t been happening.”
Trump’s “unpredictability” renders South Korea’s present ambiguity on the vital matter all the more perilous. It is critical to immediately clarify with counterparts in the US the South’s stance.
Brian Bridges, an adjunct professor of Asian politics at Lingnan University, told Bloomberg for an April 12 report: “This has the potential to turn into a conflagration that Asia hasn’t seen since the Vietnam war. If anything, his unpredictability makes the situation more risky because the North Koreans aren’t 100 percent sure he won’t attack.”
Many analysts have stressed that the risk of miscalculated military operations -- via adversaries misreading each other’s intentions -- remains among the gravest and most credible dangers the Korean Peninsula and people face today.
South Korea should pay closer attention to relevant developments in Japan.
In March, Japan began civilian evacuation drills preparing for a North Korea-related contingency.
During a bilateral government meeting preceding last week’s Trump-Xi summit, Japan’s Kyodo News reports Washington informed Tokyo it is highly possible they will strike the North and that the US president intended to deliver this plan to Xi.
Following the US-China summit, the Huanqiu Shibao, one of China’s state-run newspapers, addressed war rumors relevant to the Korean Peninsula as of legitimate concern, calling for heightened vigilance over this particular period on Tuesday. Kim Jong-un is generally believed to be preparing a nuclear or missile test, or possibly another type of provocation this month for his grandfather’s birthday and/or for the foundation date of the North Korean armed forces on April 25.
On Wednesday, Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported the US has accepted Tokyo’s request for bilateral consultation preceding military action against North Korea. Somehow, South Korea seems to be left out when the region, in the wake of US strikes, would be required to absorb the full force of Kim Jong-un’s reprisals while woefully unprotected.
KBS reported Tuesday a senior researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies warned “a US pre-emptive strike against North Korea will cause massive civilian casualties in South Korea,” further pointing out that the North’s counterattack “would not deal a severe blow to US troops, however South Korea‘s capital region, with a population of 25 million, is within the range of the North’s artillery attack.”
Cheong Seong-chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, stated for an April 11 article: “If the US attacks the Yongbyon facility, it will open the curtains to the worst-case scenario -- nuclear war -- as North Korea could attack South Korea’s nuclear plants or Seoul using nuclear weapons. ... Japan will support the US in attacking North Korea.”
On Sunday, former Japanese Cabinet Minister Shigeru Ishiba -- who has openly advocated for his country to establish the capability to conduct “pre-emptive” strikes against North Korea, and may become prime minister -- declared “Seoul might turn into a sea of fire,” while “calling for measures to rescue Japanese citizens in Seoul.” As Dong-A Ilbo pointed out in an editorial Tuesday, “Such a remark was publicly made by such an influential politician, which is simply petrifying.”
None can convincingly deny that Japan would be considerably more privy to what the US may or may not do, given the undisguised closeness of the Abe and Trump administrations.
As Joongang Ilbo pointed out in an April 10 editorial, Trump phoned Shinzo Abe before the Trump-Xi summit to discuss issues that would be raised, while no such conversation was held with Seoul.
Following the summit, Trump spoke for 45 minutes with Abe but only 20 minutes with South Korea’s Prime Minister and acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn.
We witnessed a similar disparity during Rex Tillerson’s time in Asia, and in other settings.
Most conspicuously and alarmingly, while Trump has appointed ambassadors to Japan, China and Russia, none has yet been named for Korea.
On Tuesday, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga conveyed Tokyo’s support for Washington’s consideration of “all options” vis–a–vis North Korea.
Japanese media reports the return of Tokyo’s ambassador to the South was linked to the need for facilitating the evacuation of Japanese citizens in the event of war.
It seems both China and Japan are not quite convinced that threats of a US strike on North Korea are merely bombast. The fact that both countries’ leaders have had summit meetings with Trump -- while South Korea has not -- and are taking such substantial measures ought not to be dismissed by South Koreans.
In a March 20 commentary titled “Bombing North Korea is not an option,” Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times reminds that multiple “waves” of preventive strikes would be needed to achieve US stated objectives as “North Korean nuclear and missile programs are widely dispersed, including underground and underwater.”
“It is unlikely that the whole program could be destroyed in a single wave of strikes, which would immediately raise the prospect of nuclear retaliation by the North,” Rachman wrote.
A positive and commendable step in the proper direction is that Seoul’s unification minister, Hong Yong-pyo, has stepped forward to declare South Korea’s opposition to American military action against North Korea. Through a media conference Monday, Hong stated the government will need to “consult with Washington about a pre-emptive strike against the North considering the impact it would have on the security of South Korea.” The above suggests, however, that this conversation has yet to sufficiently take place. Hong added “South Korea cannot see eye to eye with the US on every military decision,” KBS reported.
The South Korean government must now deliver the equivalent message to US authorities and “gently” but categorically remove the US military strike option “off the table” -- so that such a catastrophic misstep would never be left to chance nor a distressed, unprepared and precariously assailable populace abandoned to such agonizing speculation.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.