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No time to dither

Dec 16,2019
Tensions are rapidly mounting on the Korean Peninsula as Harvard Prof. Graham Allison, an eminent scholar on war studies, has warned. On Friday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined the chorus by warning of a direct threat to the U.S. mainland if North Korea develops an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). If diplomatic efforts fail, the United State will be prepared to deter North Korea’s missile provocations, he added.

Despite such warnings, North Korea is bent on ratcheting up tensions. On Friday, North Korea announced that it conducted an “important test” at its Tongchang-ri satellite launch site. That provocation came a day before Stephen E. Biegun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea, arrived in Seoul for discussions on Pyongyang’s belligerent actions. The North’s second test in seven days translates into a threat to press ahead with the launch of an advanced ICBM unless Washington changes its hard-line position. Given the graveness of the situation, Biegun is expected to meet with President Moon Jae-in, share intelligence on North Korea Monday, and deliver U.S. President Donald Trump’s attitude on the situation and how best to tackle the North Korean threat. Biegun will have his first face-to-face meeting with Moon since September of last year.

North Korea has been showing tangible signs of breaking its two-year self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM tests due to Uncle Sam not lifting sanctions. Yet the Moon administration has been entirely mum as if it were a mere bystander. It must solidly rebuild the shaken alliance with the United States through Biegun’s trip to Seoul if it really wants to take back its position in the driver’s seat for peninsular issues. It must make clear its position that it will impose more powerful sanctions on the North than before and resume joint military drills with the United States if North Korea fires missiles disguised as rockets for satellite launches.

An upcoming tripartite summit among South Korea, China and Japan in Chengdu, China, on Dec. 24 carries great significance. Pyongyang’s return to directly threatening Washington was possible thanks to Beijing’s secret supplies of energy and food and its permission for North Korea to trade through the border. Therefore, Moon must unequivocally demand that China persuade North Korea to stop provocations by putting more pressure on Pyongyang. Moon also must restore our relations with Japan in the rare summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by separating security cooperation with Tokyo from the wartime forced labor issue.

Washington is fixated on Trump’s impeachment. If North Korea provokes the United States, Trump may be tempted to use a military action against North Korea to overcome his domestic crisis. The Moon administration must concentrate on protecting our national security instead of indulging in its wishful thinking toward North Korea.