Expert advice on the August crisis on the Korean Peninsula: Seoul should make its opposition to war even clearer to Washington

Posted on : 2017-08-11 16:06 KST Modified on : 2017-08-11 16:06 KST
The possibility of an unplanned clash around the US-South Korea joint military exercises on Aug. 21 cannot be ruled out
On Aug. 9
On Aug. 9

Tensions have been rising to an extreme degree around the Korean Peninsula as a result of North Korea and the US’s war of inflammatory invectives. While Pyongyang and Washington are still just waging a war of words, this could conceivably escalate into a fighting war because of an unplanned clash or a moment’s miscalculation, experts believe. The problem, experts say, is that if such a clash became a reality, the South Korean public would bear the brunt of the damage, but at the moment there is no way for the South Korean government under President Moon Jae-in to intervene. What the Moon administration must do to put the brakes on the North Korea and the US’s “reckless driving” is to make its opposition to war even clearer to the US while ensuring that the South Korea-US joint military exercises, which will represent the climax of the August crisis, do not needlessly provoke the North.

The North Korean People’s Army Strategic Forces responded to US President Donald Trump’s remarks on Aug. 8 about “fire and fury” by releasing a statement threatening a strike near US military installations on Guam. After Trump hinted at the possibility of using nuclear weapons on Aug. 9 and US Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a warning of his own, the Strategic Forces seem to be cranking up the intensity of their threat. On Aug. 10, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim Rak-gyom, commander of the Korean People’s Army Strategic Forces, had released a statement on Aug. 9 saying that the North was “seriously considering a plan to launch an enveloping strike on Guam involving the simultaneous launch of four Hwasung-12 intermediate-range strategic ballistic rockets.”

A statement by the spokesperson of the Strategic Forces the previous day went a step further by having the commander personally deliver a specific warning. “After finalizing our plan for an enveloping strike on Guam, we will submit it by mid-August to our comrade Kim Jong-un, who is supreme commander of the Republic’s nuclear weapons, and remain in launch readiness as we await his orders,” Kim Rak-gyom said.

A few hours before Kim’s statement was released, Mattis said in a statement on Aug. 9 that “The DPRK [North Korea] should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” Mattis also warned that “The DPRK regime’s [military] actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.” Amid these developments, NBC quoted multiple current and former American officials in a report stating that a detailed operational plan had been prepared to have B-1B long-range bombers based in Guam launch a preemptive strike on North Korean missile bases, if Trump gives the order.

As the North Korea and the US continue their perilous standoff on the edge of the cliff, concerns are being voiced both domestically and abroad. North Korea seeks recognition as a nuclear power state, while the US hopes to eliminate the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles – and both countries appear to have concluded that the present moment is the “final step” in achieving their respective goals. This is prompting analysis that, with both sides keeping up pressure on each other, a dramatic breakthrough is not likely to be reached by the end of the year.

"The Secretary-General remains extremely concerned by the ongoing situation [on the Korean Peninsula] and is troubled by the increase in confrontational rhetoric [between North Korea and the US]," said Stéphane Dujarric, UN spokesperson, on Aug. 9. China has urged both North Korea and the US to exercise “restraint in their words and deeds,” while Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasilly Nebenzia also called for dialogue between North Korea and the US, saying that “we are in contact with the North Korean government by means of our ambassador in North Korea.”

There are also serious concerns about the possibility of an unplanned clash occurring around the South Korea-US Ulchi-Freedom Guardian joint military exercises in August. These exercises, which are held every year, simulate North Korea launching a surprise attack on the South. If South Korea and the US mobilize strategic assets to carry out a show of force against North Korea during the exercises, some think, North Korea could respond in kind. “During the April crisis, North Korea never made a response. But if North Korea carries out a sixth nuclear test or launches an ICBM this time, it could really blow up” and lead to a clash, warned Gu Gap-u, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “The government needs to emphasize that these are regular defensive exercises. It needs to avoid beefing up the exercises, as this could provoke North Korea,” said Cho Seong-ryeol, chief of research for the Institute for National Security Strategy. The Moon administration “needs to keep telling the US that it will not accept military action leading to a second war on the Korean Peninsula,” said former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun during a lecture at the National Assembly on the morning of Aug. 10 that was organized by the Minjoo Party of Korea.

More fundamental solutions are also being proposed. “South Korea needs to work on improving inter-Korean relations and resolving the North Korean nuclear issue separately and simultaneously instead of tying them together. Since the essence of the North Korean nuclear issue is hostile relations, peace talks involving South Korea, North Korea, the US and China should swiftly be held to replace the armistice agreement with a peace treaty,” said former Unification Minister Lim Dong-won during a seminar about the new government’s North Korean policy and the future of the Korean Peninsula held at Seoul City Hall on the afternoon of Aug. 10.

By Kim Ji-eun, Lim Kyu-won, staff reporters and Yi Yong-in, Washington correspondent,

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