South Korea and the US seem to be striking a different tone in seeking ways to respond to North Korea’s recent moves to heighten tensions on the peninsula.
Lee Do-hoon, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy, refused to answer questions from reporters on what he discussed with his US counterpart, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, or what they agreed to do going forward when he departed from Washington on Friday after a three-day visit.
Later in the day, Biegun held phone talks with a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official and they agreed on the need for close cooperation among Washington, Tokyo and Seoul in dealing with the North, according to a news report.
Speculation has since mounted that South Korea is asking the US to ease sanctions against North Korea to help deescalate rising tensions between the two Koreas, while Washington remains opposed to taking such a move without significant progress in denuclearizing the North.
Current and former US administration officials have mentioned the need to consider resuming joint military exercises with South Korea and bringing strategic assets back into the peninsula to deter the North from making further provocations.
But South Korea’s Defense Ministry has refrained from discussing the matters.
North Korea’s demolition of an inter-Korean liaison office last week is most likely to be the first step in a series of provocations aimed at strengthening its bargaining power with Seoul and Washington in the lead-up to and beyond the US presidential election in November.
In the course of the renewed confrontation, the North also appears to be seeking to consolidate the authority of its leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, and contain domestic discontent with growing economic difficulties caused by prolonged US-led international sanctions coupled with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. In recent weeks, Kim Yo-jong has taken the lead in lashing out at President Moon Jae-in’s administration for failing to stop North Korean defectors here from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
Pyongyang’s latest bid to ratchet up tensions on the peninsula should ultimately be seen as a test of the alliance between South Korea and the US and an attempt to widen gaps between the allies.
The North might go so far as to launch some military action against the South to put pressure on the Moon government to restore major cross-border projects at risk of violating international sanctions against the recalcitrant regime.
After, or in parallel with provocations toward South Korea, Pyongyang might turn to acts directed at the US in preparation for a second term for President Donald Trump or the presidency of former Vice President Joe Biden.
It has options to choose from without provoking the ire of Trump, who has drawn the line at nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests that threaten the US mainland. It could fire medium-range ballistic missiles over Japan or launch a missile from a submarine, demonstrating its enhanced nuclear weapons capability.
Rebuilding an overwhelming combined deterrent power of South Korea and the US on the peninsula is the most effective way to deter the Kim regime from making further provocations.
To do so, it is necessary to consider and prepare for bringing a range of US strategic assets back here and resuming joint military drills between the allies. Clear messages should be given to the North that its provocative acts would be met with firm military responses from the South and the US.
David Helvey, acting US assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said Thursday that redeploying strategic assets and resuming joint exercises “is one of the things that we are constantly talking to our South Korean allies about to ensure that we as an alliance are presenting the most effective combined deterrence and defense capability for the people in South Korea.”
Former top US officials, including H.R. McMaster, who served as national security adviser from 2017-2018, and retired Gen. Vincent Brooks, who headed American troops stationed here from 2016-2018, have advocated taking such measures to respond to Pyongyang’s return to a provocative mode.
As Brooks noted during a virtual seminar hosted last week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, North Korea needs to be made to feel “agitated” about the consequences of its reckless actions.
Seoul’s Defense Ministry warned in a statement issue after the North’s demolition of the inter-Korean liaison office that it would make sure that Pyongyang “pays the price” if it goes on to carry out a military provocation against the South. Its warning could hardly carry weight while it remains reluctant to consider strengthening combined deterrent power with the US.