Feature

Can South Korea count on the U.S.?

Furious over new U.N. sanctions, North Korea has lashed out with bellicose rhetoric against South Korea and the U.S.

“A grim mood hovers over the Korean Peninsula,” said Kang Tae-ho in The Hankyoreh (South Korea). Furious over the U.N. sanctions levied against it in retaliation for its recent nuclear test, North Korea has lashed out with bellicose rhetoric. The regime said that if South Korea and the U.S. went ahead with their annual joint military exercises this week, it would retaliate using “precision nuclear strikes” that would turn “not only Seoul, but also Washington into a sea of fire.” North Korea’s state news service announced the annulment of the 1953 armistice that ended the open conflict of the Korean War. And dictator Kim Jong Un personally addressed the very artillery unit responsible for the 2010 attack on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, which killed four South Koreans, and put his army on maximum alert. “War can break out right now,” he said. Unfortunately, he’s not exaggerating. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has promised to respond to any provocation much more firmly than her predecessor, who didn’t avenge the four deaths, so any shot fired now could well “escalate into all-out war.”

Kim’s threats are “unusually hysterical,” even for North Korea, said Andrei Lankov in the Asia Times (China). “Gone are the days when Pyongyang diplomats talked that they need nukes and missiles for purely peaceful, research-oriented purposes.” But the heated rhetoric doesn’t mean the regime is irrational. North Korea is a hereditary oligarchy whose aging lords want to stay in power. They know that launching a nuclear weapon against another state would mean their own nuclear annihilation at the hands of the U.S. They don’t have anything approaching a first-strike capability; their nukes are intended only for “deterrence and diplomatic blackmail.”

South Koreans can’t assume any such thing, said Kim Jin in the JoongAng Ilbo (South Korea). Here’s a war scenario: North Korea could explode a high-altitude nuclear bomb that emits a destructive electromagnetic pulse over South Korea, which “would paralyze electronic, electric, and communication networks in Seoul and elsewhere.” The North’s massive army could then mount a full-scale invasion and threaten to nuke U.S. forces in Asia unless the U.S. agreed to its takeover of the South. “What would the United States do? Would it make a sacrifice and drive away North Korea?” Maybe. But that’s not a risk I want to take. South Korean security demands that we either change the regime in North Korea or eliminate its nuclear capability. 

Only the U.S. and China together could strip North Korea of its nuclear capability, said the Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) in an editorial. And so far those two countries have rarely worked in concert on the North Korean issue—and never strongly enough. What would it take to make them act? Last month, some lawmakers from our ruling party were actually considering creating a South Korean nuclear deterrent. “The only way to defend our survival would be to maintain a balance of terror that confronts nuclear with nuclear,” said Rep. Shim Jae-cheol. Such a drastic step would be “an unwanted decision” and would “involve considerable risk and sacrifice.” But do we have any other choice?

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