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A nervy New Year

Dec 07,2019
As Pyongyang’s self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline nears for some progress in denuclearization endeavors, Pyongyang and Washington have revived their war of words after a two-year détente. U.S. President Donald Trump returned to his famous “Rocket Man” mockery of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He also raised the option of using military force during a NATO summit in Britain on Tuesday. “We have the most powerful military we’ve ever had. Hopefully, we don’t have to use it, but if we do, we’ll use it,” he said. That comment was a sharp turnaround from his show of faith in Kim even as Pyongyang fired off short-range missiles 13 times this year.

Pyongyang has responded with characteristic fulmination. North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui warned that if Washington resumes its insults and threats, “we will have to diagnose that the dotard has gone senile again.” Army Chief Pak Jong-chon warned that North Korea would respond with “prompt corresponding actions” if the United States used any force. State media showed Kim riding a white horse through the snow on Mount Paektu, a deliberate echo of his grandfather Kim Il Sung waging guerrilla attacks against Japanese forces. He also summoned a general assembly of the central committee of the Workers’ Party for later this month, suggesting he could make an important announcement.

North Korea has already warned that it could resume its missile and nuclear programs if Washington does not show a sincere attitude toward negotiations. Satellite imagery shows renewed activities at the Dongchang-ri missile test site and the Yongbyon nuclear facility complex. Some reported that a launcher for an intercontinental ballistic missile was being set up. The United States has been flying surveillance jets around the Korean Peninsula to up its vigilance.

And yet the Seoul government is mum. Washington is demanding Seoul increase its payments for the U.S. military presence by fivefold. U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris bluntly cited reports that President Moon Jae-in was surrounded by pro-North Korean leftists.

Moon remains idealistic. Seoul is inviting isolation in the diplomatic world by its unrealistic perception of developments on the security front.

The government may be hoping Washington will forge a dramatic settlement with Pyongyang as Trump seeks a second term. But Trump, under impeachment pressure, could strike a dangerous deal. North Korea could hide its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang could capitalize on the cooled ties between Seoul and Washington to negotiate directly with Washington.

The worst case scenario of North Korea being a de facto nuclear state must be avoided. Seoul must reinforce ties with Washington and send a strong message to Pyongyang about its belligerence. At the same time, it should work hard as not to extinguish the dialogue mood.

JoongAng Sunday, Dec. 7, Page 30