Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON – The standoff on the Korean peninsula is entering a new phase. While President Moon Jae-In calls for talks with North Koreans, he is also honoring the U.S.-Korean alliance and insisting the North give up its nuclear program.
Can Moon have it both ways? He’s besieged by protesters who expect him to abandon totally the policies of his conservative predecessors and support North Korea’s strategy of weakening the South from within.
Against leftist demands, for instance, he is holding on to THAAD, the terminal high altitude area defense system that consists of one counter-missile battery implanted by the Americans on a Lotte golf course far south of Seoul.
In effect, Moon is waging a war of words on two fronts. On one hand, he’s making overtures to the North Koreans in hopes of reopening a dormant dialogue that might bring about regular North-South contacts. At the same time, he’s got to contend with radicals who expect him to live up to their demands, including removal of the THAAD, seen as a provocation that can only worsen the North-South confrontation.
Shocking though it might seem to radical critics, Moon’s people doubt if THAAD will be enough and are openly advocating nuclear weapons to counter North Korea’s nukes. The argument is that South Korea can never stand on its own against the North without a nuclear program independent from that of the U.S.
Might Moon eventually call for South Korea to become a nuclear power? Certainly he would like to promote a negotiating position free of constraints imposed by the alliance with the U.S. His government must take the lead in negotiations with the North while the Americans and Chinese enter the process only after the South and North have reached an understanding on a peace treaty under which the North gives up its nuclear-missile program.
No one, however, can be so crazy as to believe North Korea will abandon its nukes. Instead, the North will demand the U.S. and South Korea halt military exercises while lifting sanctions. The North Koreans are counting on the South Koreans who took to the streets on Moon’s behalf to pressure him to meet their demands, and they’ve got the support of American leftists who believe just about anything they’re told by Pyongyang.
Moon, however, may choose quite another way to show his independence. While opening contacts with the North, he could defy the longstanding deal with the U.S. under which South Korea refrains from research and development of nuclear warheads. The result would be a balance of terror similar to that between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union in which both super-powers brandished hundreds of warheads.
Memories of that era endure in the American consciousness as news of contacts between President Trump and mysterious Russians fill the airwaves and front pages of the U.S. media. What could be worse, in the American view, than Trump, his family and others in his entourage carrying on with people from a country that’s an historic foe of the U.S. and still no friend more than a quarter century since the demise of Communist rule?
Kim Jong-Un might break into the American news cycle by ordering a sixth nuclear test or another long-range missile shot, but Americans remain fixated by the Russian campaign to manipulate and undermine American democracy by cyber-espionage and other tactics.
Amid the controversy swirling around him, Trump is not likely to consider a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities. At the same time, the distraction of U.S. internal politics means Moon can act with increasing independence from the U.S.
Radicals who see Moon yielding to Pyongyang’s demands will be disappointed to discover he’s not going to give in so easily. In fact, the confrontation could deepen if Moon calls for South Korea finally to “go nuclear.”
Among the most disappointed will be American leftists who have long sought to interfere in the South Korean democratic movement. They refuse to recognize North Korea’s egregious disregard for human rights while justifying the North’s nuclear program as needed for “self-defense” in the certainty that Moon is their man.
So doing, these interventionists cast themselves on the side not of Moon but of North Korea against the South. Moon needs to spurn them while pursuing inter-Korean détente.
Donald Kirk has been covering the confrontation on the Korean peninsula for decades. He’s at email@example.com.