As North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump’s war of words escalates, National Liberation Day celebrations -- commemorating the Korean Peninsula’s 1945 freedom from Japanese colonial rule -- have unfolded in both North and South Korea. The occasion underscores not just the shared history between the two countries, but also the South’s unique qualifications to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current military standoff.
As much as Kim may enjoy threatening the most powerful country in the world, the United States has never been North Korea’s primary target. On the contrary, the North’s real objective has always been to ensure the survival of the Kim regime and, in the longer term, to secure the reunification of the Korean Peninsula under that regime’s leadership. South Korea thus faces the most acute danger, and has the strongest incentive to alleviate tensions with the North.
That goal will not be advanced by South Korea’s annual joint military exercise with the US, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, which is geared toward preparing both countries for a conflict with the North. On the contrary, with saber-rattling between North Korea and the US at an all-time high, the exercise -- which will begin on Monday -- could escalate the conflict dramatically.
Even in normal times, North Korea reacts angrily to UFG. Last year, it tested its fifth nuclear device just after the exercises were held. But now that North Korea is overtly threatening to launch missiles at the US island of Guam, and being further provoked by Trump, its response to another round of UFG could be less symbolic, and far more devastating.
If North Korea lashes out, the strategy of deterrence that underpins the US-South Korea alliance will have been fatally undermined. Deterrence means using a credible threat of serious punishment to prevent an opponent from initiating military engagement. And yet North Korea has already dismissed Trump’s threats as a “load of nonsense.” If this month’s war games trigger a military confrontation or an outright exchange of fire, deterrence will officially have failed.
The problem is that, even if Trump and Kim recognize the corner into which they have painted themselves, neither has the political space to backpedal on their threats without risking serious domestic and international humiliation.
Worse still, both leaders lack credibility in the eyes of the other, and of the world. China’s leaders have long viewed Trump as unreliable, or “bu kaopu.” Now, Trump’s emotional response to North Korea’s actions has further reinforced that assessment, and given Chinese leaders even less of a reason to get involved in the drama. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been Trump’s most steadfast supporter among East Asian leaders, is wary of the domestic political consequences of Trump’s brinksmanship.
Of course, Japan, as North Korea’s ultimate historical enemy, would have no leverage over Kim anyway. The only country with the credibility, leverage and motivation to lead the way toward a peaceful resolution to the current crisis is South Korea. But South Korea has so far straddled the line between antagonism and diplomacy.
On the one hand, South Korea agrees with Trump on the need for tougher sanctions and military readiness, including full deployment of the US anti-missile system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense. On the other hand, it has indicated it would be willing to engage in joint military talks and diplomatic dialogue with North Korea, and it even invited Kim’s government to participate in a joint National Liberation Day celebration. (The North refused, citing the planned UFG.)
South Korea now needs to take a stronger approach. Rather than shove a weak opponent into a corner and risk them lashing out, South Korea should formally request an indefinite postponement of this year’s UFG, which would be counterproductive and is not essential at this time. The US and South Korea already held massive joint exercises involving about 320,000 troops -- more than six times the combined troop strength of the planned UFG -- in March and April of this year, and in 2016.
During that period, the US also deployed a strike group, including the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, to the region, saying that it would counter “reckless acts of aggression” with “whatever methods the US wants to take.” The US also docked one of the largest nuclear-powered submarines in the world, the USS Michigan, in South Korea, and held “decapitation exercises” to prepare troops to infiltrate North Korea and eliminate Kim and his ruling cohort.
Simply put, this month’s UFG exercises are far from critical to the US-South Korea alliance. By suspending them, South Korea would have an opportunity to pursue inter-Korean military-to-military dialogue with the North, while reinstating basic communications channels, including hotlines, which were cut off early last year. The South should also urge its northern counterpart to coordinate the commemoration of Liberation Day, a near-sacred day for all Koreans, as a symbolic gesture of a unified Korean past and possible future.
To be sure, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has already made such overtures, and to no avail. But it may be more successful if it can use a postponed UFG as leverage. In the event, South Korea would emerge as a legitimate broker in the conflict between the US and North Korea, rather than as a US lackey, as the Kim regime likes to view it. That would greatly improve the prospects of a future negotiation among the three actors, once things have cooled down.
South Korea, with its affinity to both the US and North Korea, is uniquely suited to defuse the current situation. The stakes are too high for it not to try.
By Katharine H.S. Moon
Katharine H.S. Moon, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is Wasserman chair of Asian studies and a professor of political science at Wellesley College. -- Ed.