Fears of U.S. Strike on N.Korea Are Premature

      April 11, 2017 12:47

      Senior officials in the Trump administration have signaled the possibility of a preemptive strike against North Korea, resulting in rumors spreading in South Korea of an imminent attack. They were spurred by reports that a U.S. Navy strike group headed by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson has been dispatched to the waters off the Korean Peninsula, and stories in the Japanese press that the return of the Japanese ambassador to Seoul was aimed at facilitating the evacuation of Japanese citizens in case of a war.

      On social media, people were soon claiming that foreign businesses are pulling out or that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un plans to defect.

      A preemptive strike is certainly one of the options on the table for the new U.S. administration. President Donald Trump is probably the most likely American leader so far to consider the option. But any military operation requires a clear objective as well as a detailed follow-up plan, and when it comes to North Korea both of these points are murky at best.

      Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo on Monday voiced opposition to a preemptive attack, saying South Korea "cannot but consider various problems" such a move would entail. The U.S. defense secretary has always stressed the side effects of a preemptive attack when briefing the president about such an option.

      Perhaps the chances are no longer zero, but the North Korean nuclear crisis can still be handled through diplomatic pressure. Stoking fears of an imminent attack is highly irresponsible. A likelier outcome is a repeat of the pattern seen over the past 20 years, when tensions flared on the Korean Peninsula only to be followed by dialogue.

      Tillerson said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, "In terms of North Korea, we have been very clear that our objective is a denuclearized Korean Peninsula." But he added, "We have no objective to change the regime in North Korea -- that is not our objective."

      Tillerson added, "And that's what we have asked for, is for them to cease all this testing before we can begin to think about having further talks with them." That suggests that the Trump administration is seeking a nuclear weapons and missile freeze rather than dismantlement before starting talks.

      It is hard to determine what exactly those comments mean, but they certainly signal a notable change. The North Korean nuclear impasse began in the early 1990s and has since gone through a vicious cycle of heightening tensions leading to talks and rewards, only to be followed by the North reneging on all its promises and ratcheting up tensions again. This was partly due to the U.S.' focus on short-term, easily publicized achievements rather than seeking fundamental changes. The pattern must not be repeated.

      Instead, the UN must strengthen sanctions against North Korea and see them through. China must be made to feel a clear need to get on board. Thae Yong-ho, the former North Korean deputy ambassador to the U.K. who defected to South Korea last year, has testified that the North Korean regime is under enormous strain. Now is a time for patience, strict implementation of sanctions and firm diplomatic pressure on the North.

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