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[Editorial] Beyond commitment

Amid daunting security environment, Seoul should tighten alliance with US

In the early morning of New Year’s Day, President Moon Jae-in flew on an airborne early warning and control aircraft to inspect the South Korean military’s combat readiness in what his aides described as a show of his commitment to national security.

The E-737 Peace Eye plane with Moon aboard flew over the country and its territorial waters for about two hours Friday. Later, Moon praised soldiers for training day and night to maintain a high level of military readiness and thanked them for their sacrifice to keep the nation safe and help people spend New Year’s Day in peace.

It was desirable for Moon as commander in chief to open the year with an event designed to heighten the country’s security posture. What is more important, however, is for him to look squarely at the security challenges facing the nation and take firm and coherent steps to surmount them.

The Moon administration’s blind pursuit of reconciliation with the recalcitrant regime in North Korea has been criticized for weakening South Korea’s military preparedness and undermining its vital alliance with the US.

There has been no progress in dismantling the North’s nuclear arsenal, despite a string of meetings Moon and US President Donald Trump held with the totalitarian state’s dictator Kim Jong-un in 2018 and 2019.

The North might test-fire a range of upgraded ballistic missiles in the early months of the incoming Biden administration in a bid to pressure Washington to agree on a deal on more favorable terms.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will be inaugurated Jan. 20, has called for “principled diplomacy” and favors working-level negotiations over Trump’s top-down approach. This may mean the North hardly stands a chance of being recognized as a nuclear-armed state by making concessions short of complete denuclearization in return for a significant lifting of sanctions on the impoverished regime.

According to the Land Institute, a US nonprofit research organization, North Korea is pushing ahead with the goal of expanding its stock of nuclear weapons, which was estimated at 50-100 in October, to 200-300.

With Pyongyang sticking to its nuclear ambitions, the alliance between Seoul and Washington has been strained in recent years, as the Moon government stands ready to pander to the Kim regime and Trump puts economic interests ahead of the values binding the allies together.

South Korea-US joint military drills have been scaled down or delayed indefinitely. The two sides have yet to conclude negotiations to renew an accord that expired at the end of 2019 on how to share the costs for the upkeep of the American troops here.

The allies have also shown differences over the issue of South Korea retaking the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its forces from the US. The Moon government hopes to complete the wartime OPCON transfer before Moon’s five-year tenure ends in 2022, while Washington believes it will take more time for Seoul to meet the necessary conditions for the transition.

In addition to satisfying technical and tactical requirements, South Korea’s military needs to tighten its lax discipline, which critics attribute partly to the Moon government’s preoccupation with inter-Korean reconciliation, if it can be trusted to take over the wartime OPCON from the US. In November, for example, a North Korean man crossed the Demilitarized Zone into the South without being detected.

Aboard the early warning plane, Moon may have recalled -- or should have, at least -- the recent string of incursions by Chinese and Russian military aircraft into South Korea’s airspace.

In December, 19 Chinese and Russian military planes entered the country’s air defense identification zone during what appeared to be a combined drill. Months earlier, two Russian bombers and two Chinese bombers trespassed there without prior notice before a Russian surveillance aircraft committed what the South Korean Air Force described as an “unprecedented violation of the country’s territorial airspace” over the East Sea.

Beijing and Moscow, which have forged closer military ties in recent years, seem to be maneuvering to place the Korean Peninsula and nearby waters under their influence. They have also sought to get Pyongyang to side with them against Washington by helping the Kim regime withstand the US-led sanctions, and probably by acquiescing to its status as a nuclear power.

This daunting security environment makes it all the more necessary for Seoul to strengthen its alliance with the US and, by extension, defense cooperation with Japan.

Moon should turn his symbolic gesture and rhetoric into substantial actions to prove his commitment to national security.