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Prudence needed

Jan 02,2020
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s mention of a “new strategic weapon” in a plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang rings alarms about security on the Korean Peninsula. Kim, chairman of the North’s mighty State Affairs Commission, said the world will witness the arrival of a new strategic weapon pretty soon. He also threatened that there will be no denuclearization if the United States continues with hostile policies toward North Korea. In the same meeting in 2018, North Korea declared an end to its nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, saying their development was complete.

The “new path” North Korea threatened likely refers to breaking away from denuclearization talks with Washington that have taken place episodically over the last two years. If the North had fired an advanced ICBM as a “Christmas gift” to the United States, as threatened, it could have raised a risk of war. Previously, North Korea had pledged not to resume ICBM or nuclear testing. Fortunately, Pyongyang refrained from crossing that particular line, probably to avoid provoking U.S. President Donald Trump. If Kim had resorted to a missile provocation, it could have posed an extra burden to him in returning to the simultaneous pursuit of economic development and nuclear armaments. Due to this dilemma, Kim stopped short of making his signature New Year’s speech on the morning of Jan. 1.

The ball is in the court of the United States. Washington could be tempted to ease up on its sanctions on North Korea, albeit partly. However, as Pyongyang has yet to take its first step toward denuclearization as agreed to in the historic U.S.-North summit in Singapore in 2018, Trump can hardly ease sanctions in the face of the United Nations resolutions, U.S. Congress resolutions and his own executive orders.

In such circumstances, sanctions cannot be lifted easily unless Kim embarks on denuclearization. North Korea has merely earned some time with the announcement before tensions are ratcheted up. We have got one more chance to bring Kim back to the negotiating table. If we fail to take this opportunity, a head-on collision is possible.

The Moon Jae-in administration must encourage North Korea to take a path toward denuclearization, while deterring Pyongyang from provocations. North Korea did not fire an ICBM before or after Christmas due to our deterrence based on the decades-old Korea-U.S. alliance and cooperation with neighbors. The military must rebuild our joint defense capabilities to prove that a provocation from Pyongyang will always end in failure. Our government should be careful with easing sanctions on the North. We hope the government demonstrates prudence in its North Korea policy.